Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Here's to the 4-4-2, Quakes defy logic, Galaxy show real progress & everything else from Week 2

Through two weeks there are just four perfect teams left. Parity takes another hand.

In we go:

The You You Are

Thirty-two minutes into this game Montréal took a 1-0 lead off a build-up that was so pretty, with off-ball movement that was so precise, and that was such a masterclass in how to attack a 4-4-2, that I clipped it, tweeted it, and basically already had it set for this blurb.

I'm dropping it here because it's worth watching:

But then something happened: The Union woke up. It didn't happen immediately – in fact, it took a bit of good fortune with a second Montréal goal being Video Reviewed off early in the second half to fully roust Philly from their offseason slumber – but in the 53rd minute, Alejandro Bedoya dug the ball out of a scrum in the box and curled it inside the far post. Three minutes later, Daniel Gazdag made it 2-1 after splitting a couple of Montréal defenders to one-time home a tidy little cross from Julian Carranza.

And just like that, it felt like the Union were the Union again. After three fairly uninspiring halves to start the season, they went on the road, endured a bit against a very good team, waited 'em out, wore 'em down, and scraped out a win.

This is not the only Union way. But it is very much a Union way, and one that they've put to good use over the past three seasons.

“Credit to our guys for sticking to things. I thought there was probably a 15-minute period there in the second half where we really looked like us, which made me happy. Obviously we got two goals during that period, then from there seemed to have good control of the game and in typical MLS fashion some chaos ensued,” head coach Jim Curtin said afterward. Earlier in the press conference he called it “a very gutsy, Philadelphia Union type of win.”

There is not much in the underlying data that loves this team right now, which is in keeping with what the numbers saw last year. Through two games they are mostly mid-table in all the relevant attacking metrics, and where they’re not mid-table, they’re down in the bottom third of the league. To be fair that’s kind of by design – Philly care more about dominating field position than they do about dominating possession, so every incomplete pass in the attacking third doubles as a chance to win a valuable 50/50. Just look at Bedoya’s goal again if you want to see it play out on the field.

With that approach comes clarity. The Union know how they want to play, and the most important thing for this group is coming out with the energy to impose that upon their opponents. It’s weird that it took them three halves of play to find the gas, but they did eventually find it, and in the process reminded me (and everyone else) why I (and everyone but the spreadsheet maximalists) picked them as a top-tier contender for 2022. This was a really, really good win against what I still think is a really, really good CF Montréal side.

Of course, this doesn’t mean Philly’s no longer susceptible to sequences like that CFM goal linked above. I still think that a well-drilled possession team can pull most 4-4-2s apart – the ball has no lungs, after all.

The Union know that too, though, and thanks to that Montréal goal they’ve got a little extra film to study this week.

In Perpetuity

Since the arrival of Jesse Marsch in 2015, RBNY coaches have sporadically been trying to implement their own version of the 4-4-2, which is the foundational formation for Energy Drink Soccer and has been for the better part of a decade now.

The principles are simple: play a high line; have the forwards cut the field in half and keep the opponents pinned to one side; win the ball; go vertical.

That “cut the field in half” bit is how they avoid getting pulled apart like the Union did on the goal above. The other aspect of this formation is that the defensive set-up immediately becomes an attacking set-up when the ball is turned over, because by keeping two forwards high, there are always multiple vertical outlets when the midfield wins the ball.

As so:

Toronto just were never ready for this in what became a cake-walk of a 4-1 win for the Red Bulls. The mobility of Frankie Amaya and Dru Yearwood in central midfield just completely shrunk the space TFC wanted to work in, and with two forwards always stationed between the lines, Toronto’s midfield and defense were always scrambling to contain instead of immediately getting pressure of their own to the ball. Michael Bradley was never a great scrambler, and now he just can’t do it at all.

That puts way more pressure on the Reds’ backline than they can currently handle, and it’s not just this weekend – the one goal they gave up in Week 1 at Dallas came from a similar sequence. It’s just Week 2, but I think we’re already to the point where if Bradley’s going to be the d-mid he’s got to be protected by ball-winning maniacs at the 8s, and neither Jonathan Osorio nor Alejandro Pozuelo are that. The pieces in Toronto don’t really fit.

Back to the Red Bulls: When these vertical opportunities present themselves, the job of the weak-side midfielder is to trail the play and get himself to the top of the box for one-time finishes. Lewis Morgan scored on two of them, and Gerhard Struber was pleased.

“He always comes underneath,” Struber said in the postgame. “He was always ready and forward [Patryk Klimala] has also today always a good eye on him, and also he played him clean passes in areas that Lewis can handle this with his shooting ability in a very successful way. This makes in the end the big difference today. I will say that forward\] [Tom Barlow works extremely hard today and he made the job for the center backs from Toronto very difficult.”

That’s it, man, that’s the blueprint: Win the ball, the forwards raise hell with their movement, and a trailing runner sneaks in to score from the top of the box. Salzburg and Leipzig have done this a bajillion times over the years.

RBNY have not, though. Neither Marsch, nor Chris Armas, nor Bradley Carnell, nor Struber last season have been able to get the formation to work in MLS.

One game doesn’t change that, even if it was a very strong data point. Still, Struber is confident that the 2022 version of his side has more flexibility within and mastery of their different shapes than the group he had in 2021.

“Yes, I think we are a step further from the last season and we can handle different systems and this is necessary. I think that we play in more systems and it's from the one side that I have always the right players in the right spot and on the other side it's important, especially that we have more impact in the opponent system with our flexibility with our variability,” he explained. “This is a big step from what we did last time but also I think we have to be always clear with our behavior and the behavior in the system makes the difference.

“This is for me the answer but I think the system today helped us and was a good tool to bring Toronto in difficult moments.”

I won’t argue with any of that. Toronto and San Jose (who RBNY beat 3-1 last weekend) are not good teams right now, but even so, I don’t think last year’s version of the Red Bulls walks out of these two games with six points and a +5 goal differential.

They have, at least temporarily, found a new gear thanks to their old shape, and after two weeks it’s got them perched atop the Eastern Conference.

A few more things to ponder...

12. I’m going to stick with the 4-4-2 theme for one more little blurb here, and note that Bruce Arena seems to have made a little bit of an adjustment to New England’s version after last weekend, an adjustment that worked pretty well in his side’s 1-0 home win over FC Dallas.

Instead of the typical 4-4-2 wide diamond, it was more of a 4-2-2-2 or even sometimes a 4-5-1 with Tommy McNamara dropping deep next to Matt Polster to provide more numbers defensively, while Sebastian Lletget, Gustavo Bou and of course Carles Gil all had freer roles. Second Spectrum’s tracking data gives us a general idea of how it looked:


It wasn’t silky smooth, and it asks a ton from the fullbacks pushing forward (Seth Macomber of The Bent Musket had a good thread on the tactical implications HERE). But I think the upside with this is pretty damn high.

Also, congrats to Bruce for passing Sigi Schmid on the all-time regular-season wins list. It’s well-earned.

Dallas look more solid and less vulnerable defensively this year under Nico Estevez, whose 4-3-3 is so similar to what Gregg Berhalter uses with the US men’s national team. As with the USMNT, however, Dallas are prone to moving possession too slowly to expose teams that have become disorganized, and thus have some trouble creating high-level chances.

11. Chicago’s scoreless home draw against visiting Orlando City was a real slog that didn’t produce much for either side, save for a point apiece.

One thing worth noting, though: Orlando’s Cesar Araujo is maybe the most impressive newcomer thus far this season. The young Uruguayan has taken the starting No. 6 job (though because he's Uruguayan, he should properly be referred to as a "No. 5") and the early vibes from him are just so Beckerman-esque. He doesn't put a foot wrong with his reads, will crunch you in the tackle and seems to be promising at moving the ball to valuable spots for his team.

Orlando City and the Fire are both better organized than last year, which is a good start. Neither’s clicking in the attacking third, though.

10. FC Cincinnati saved their gut-churning collapse for the very end this week, as Geoff Cameron committed a 95th-minute handball that turned into a 98th-minute game-winning PK from Ola Kamara in D.C.’s 1-0 win in Ohio, which came despite the fact that the hosts were up a man for the final 10 minutes and stoppage time.

Both teams had their chances in this one. Credit to D.C. for continuing to push, and for drawing another penalty. It’s their second in two games, both of which have been converted. In 36 games under Hernan Losada now they are 11-for-12 from the spot, while their opponents are just 2-for-2.

It is a wild discrepancy, and one I’m not quite sure I can explain.

9. I also can not quite explain San Jose’s come-from-behind 3-3 home draw against Columbus, a game in which the Quakes played a man down for the final hour, and were two goals down for the final 25 minutes and got rescued by a pair of Francisco Calvo set-piece headers to come back for the point.

I really don’t know what to say here. The Quakes played their now-standard man-marking 3-6-1 that became a 3-5-1 after Jamiro Monteiro was sent off. It was chaotic in the ways you’d expect that to be chaotic, and the Crew were dominant in ways that you should probably expect a team in that situation to be dominant.

And then Calvo happened. There are like six different contenders in this clip for Face of the Week, but I think Eloy Room’s the one who’s got it:

Columbus didn’t generate a single shot after Lucas Zelarayan’s free-kick banger gave them a 3-1 lead in the 73rd minute. They just switched off, and credit to Caleb Porter for basically saying as much.

"We have to learn from the last 10 minutes. It's that simple. 3-1, the game was ours,” Porter said in the postgame presser. “This team is mature enough, experienced enough to not let that happen. At the very least, win that last set piece and take the 3-2 win.”

8. Young Thomas Hasal didn’t quite have to reprise his MLS is Back Tournament heroics from 2020, but his performance in goal was probably a bit reassuring for a Whitecaps team that desperately needs him to be as huge this year as Maxime Crepeau was last year.

In Saturday night’s scoreless home draw against NYCFC, Hasal was exactly that. The kid didn’t put a foot wrong, making four saves controlling the box and obviously getting the zero.

I have not changed my opinion that the Pigeons are the best team in the league, goalless start to the season be damned. They’re back home – or home-ish, anyway – for a Concacaf Champions League game on Tuesday and then hosting Montréal next weekend. I might be willing to examine my priors after those two games.

7. I haven’t quite changed my opinion on the Sounders, either – they rotated heavily for this weekend’s weather-interrupted 1-0 loss at RSL where, it should be noted, the Sounders always lose.

But also, Seattle have won just once in their last 11 games across all competitions, which dates back to last October. With most teams you could say “yeah, but that’s season-to-season so there’s been a lot of turnover,” but you can’t say that with the Sounders since they brought back 18 of their top 20 players from last season in terms of minutes played.

Now, the one game they won during this stretch was a big one – the 5-0 over Motagua in the second leg of their CCL Round of 16 series, which put them into the quarterfinals. They still have experience, knowhow and damn near overwhelming talent. But it’s been a while since they played well. It really has.

RSL, on the other hand, played very well, and were good value for that 1-0 win, courtesy of some relentlessness from Bobby Wood. The balance in central midfield was much better than what was on display in Week 1, and it does seem like Pablo Mastroeni’s going to stick with the 3-5-2. I think that makes sense given the potential in a Wood/Damir Kreilach pairing up top, along with a new, presumably DP No. 10 underneath.

Speaking of DP No. 10s, I really do not understand this:

RSL had a whole “welcome back” ceremony for Albert Rusnak. He’s a pretty good player who was there for five years during which RSL didn’t win anything, and then left for a rival in free agency.

What? What about that deserves a ceremony?

RSL’s fans welcomed Rusnak back with boos. I'm glad there's free agency in MLS now, and I don't blame Rusnak at all for choosing a new place of work, but purely from a sports perspective I think the fans got it right here.

6. Sporting KC beat Houston 1-0 at home on Saturday afternoon thanks to a goal from Remi Walter, who cleaned up a mess in front of goal after a classic Johnny Russell pullback unlocked the Dynamo’s very, very low block.

Walter played at the back point of that Sporting three-man midfield in this one, and acquitted himself well even beyond the goal. That said, Houston are so punchless – they’re under 1 xG generated on the season, and haven’t created .5 xG in either of their games. They had basically zero ability to move the ball across midfield until Coco Carrasquilla and Darwin Quintero were subbed on in the 66th minute.

Carrasquilla is awesome, by the way, and should be starting. He’s in Houston on loan until mid-season, and they have to 1) get him into the XI, and 2) make that loan permanent.

5. Austin eviscerated Inter Miami on Sunday afternoon, just rampaging past them in open play and rising above them on set pieces for a 5-1 home win. Josh Wolff has done a very nice job of rearranging the pieces the front office brought in for him last year, re-balancing the central midfield and adjusting how the wingers work – through two games they are much quicker to switch from possession to attack than they were in 2021. And in the process, they set a new record with 10 goals through two games. They might want to thank the schedule-makers a bit.

Miami were, as the scoreline indicates, a disaster. Phil Neville has become like the 87th different coach to discover that Brek Shea cannot in fact play as a center back and, honestly, why? Why try a guy who’s never worked there in that spot instead of getting Aime Mabika, who was dominant both in college and last year in USL play, onto the field?

I understand coaches erring on the side of experience when you’re staring down the barrel of a bad time, which is what Inter are 100% looking at. But this is a step too far, and an example of a coach valuing experience alone over any clear-eyed assessment of a given player’s strengths and weaknesses.

Miami aren’t going to turn this thing around this year. Playing a 32-year-old Shea at center back is not going to build, in any way, toward next year. Playing a 23-year-old Mabika actually might.

4. The Rapids finally got off the schneid, battering a short-handed Atlanta team by 3-0 in Commerce City. We’ll file this game under “actually, a false 9 can work very well” since Diego Rubio was utterly dominant – he scored the first goal, and then dropped back as a playmaker to set up the second and third. It was one of the best performances of the weekend by anyone.

Not so for the center forward on the other side, who used to play as a traditional center forward but now seems more intent to drop back? The numbers are not great for Josef Martinez through two games:

Here is a brain dump from a buddy of mine on what might be happening with Josef: “Very subjective but runs increase when there is trust, trust that the runner will be spotted or that service is imminent. Players that go head down and lack field vision discourage runs. Guys who overelaborate out wide, cutting back over and over, [and] who aren’t decisive create uncertainty in their runners, causing them to delay or not sell out, making the runs less effective.”

That all tracks for me. I’m not sure that Josef will ever be the house afire he was before the ACL injury two years ago, but at the very least he could or maybe even should be more decisive. That said, with the cadre of head-down dribblers Atlanta have surrounded him with over the past few years, as well as the massively changed principles of play under first Frank de Boer and then Gabriel Heinze, it’s understandable that he still looks like a different guy than he did from 2017 to 2019.

3. There has maybe never been an MLS game that played out according to the script quite so precisely as Portland's 1-1 draw at LAFC late Sunday night to close the weekend. It had:

  • A Yimmi Chara bike goal
  • LAFC collecting nearly 70% possession but being unable to break through until throwing the kitchen sink forward at the death
  • Portland happily dropping everyone behind the ball as soon as it was 1-0
  • Claudio Bravo picking up a silly and entirely unnecessary second yellow
  • Dairon Asprilla shooting from 40 yards
  • Dairon with a bike clearance from his own 18 defending a set piece
  • Portland twice getting saved by the woodwork
  • Mamadou Fall scoring his fifth goal in just 1800 MLS minutes – he's a 19-year-old center back!!!
  • Carlos Vela coming off with an unspecified injury at halftime

Ask anyone who's watched these teams play each other over the past four years what this game would've looked like, and that's the bingo card they'd have come up with. It's uncanny.

2. I can’t get over this hit from Efra Alvarez, who provided the only goal in the Galaxy’s 1-0 win at Charlotte on Saturday night:

The Galaxy are good. This is the second straight week they’ve grinded out a 1-0 win, and while I’m not about to say they’re 2010 RSL, the defense thus far is night-and-day from the past half-decade of Galaxy teams. I’m about ready to take a victory lap on my “Mark Delgado is going to be one of the best acquisitions of the offseason, by anybody” prediction.

Part of the reason for LA’s dominance, though, is that Charlotte are incomplete and punchless. A league-record 74,479 fans saw their team get outshot 12-0 in the first half of their home debut, and 21-5 overall. They really only threatened twice, after only really threatening twice last week. That crowd deserved a better show.

There is a new winger on the way in Polish international Kamil Jozwiak… who has 1g/4a in 58 games for Derby County in the English Championship. I don’t know if he’s going to fix this.

1. And finally, I don’t know whether to give our Pass of the Week to Dax McCarty or Hany Mukhtar here on the opener in Nashville’s 1-1 draw at Minnesota United:

They’ll have to split it, but they should also dap up Anibal Godoy a bit here as well. He recognizes that the Loons are slow to get pressure to McCarty, and when that happens, it’s time to go vertical and flood the box with runners. “Get as many guys in the box as possible and provide good service” is fine as a baseline principle of play, and this is that being applied right here.

Hassani Dotson got the Minnesota equalizer off a set piece. I’m still not sure how or why Nashville are so defensively dominant from open play, but so flammable on restarts.