Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Insigne's not fixing a broken Toronto, Austin are more than just bonus games & more from Week 18

We’re past the midway point. Away we go!

Something very expensive

If you want to see what’s going wrong with Toronto FC thus far this year, you only need to look at the first goal they conceded in Saturday’s 2-0 home loss to the Sounders, because it is everything this team struggles with writ large.

That’s simple stuff, man. A long diagonal, one-touch to a winger who’s now isolated on a CB in space, then a nice little move before a low ball across the box from the optimal assist zone for the one-time finish. TFC struggle with all of that – they allow teams to complete a lot of diagonals; they allow teams to get into transition way too easily; they allow an unusually high percentage of those transition moments to get to the most profitable spots on the field; and then, when opponents are in those profitable spots and forcing TFC to defend on the back foot, the Reds have been awful at doing so.

This doesn’t just show up in the film, it shows up in the numbers. As per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, TFC are 26th in the league in xG allowed from crosses in transition, and in organized defense they are dead last by a freaking mile.

It seems, to me, to be a case of mismatched parts as Bob Bradley struggles to fit his personnel into his system. There is no real place for Alejandro Pozuelo, a true No. 10, in Bradley’s 4-3-3. So Bradley has shifted at times, including on Saturday, to a kind of a 4-4-2. But that formation’s weakness is that it defends narrowly across the frontline, so teams that can hit accurate diagonals are just one pass from a transition moment.

This is then compounded by a cadre of raw fullbacks who aren’t quite up to MLS speed. Watch the play above again; Kosi Thompson gets caught in no-man’s land, which is how Carlos Salcedo ends up isolated on a winger in space. Left back Luca Petrasso, meanwhile, just stops tracking the eventual goalscorer, Dylan Teves.

Here’s Second Spectrum analyst Ethan Kutler, who pulled most of the data on this for me, putting his finger directly on it:

Regarding their fullback positioning – IMO they seem really tight when their opposition is attacking high up the pitch. TFC typically drops into a 5(ish) backline shape when they’re under attack deep in their defensive third. Typically you’d like to see fullback freedom to step out to the ball in this shape and put pressure on crossers/deter easy passes into crossing areas. As you can see, TFC stays super narrow, despite the extra cover of a dropped 6.

Thompson is 19 and Petrasso is 22. Combined they have fewer than 35 MLS appearances. They are slow to read the game right now, and they are taking their lumps.

The worry is that so, too, are Salcedo and his veteran CB partner Chris Mavinga, who… somehow steps backward and ends up letting both Sounders attackers get goalside? What???

I was worried Toronto FC were going to struggle to start the season because their pieces don't fit, and it's kind of come to pass. Pozuelo is often a passenger; Jonathan Osorio doesn’t really seem to have a spot; Ayo Akinola has mostly been injured, ineffective, and lost.

But the bigger problem is that the pieces that were supposed to fit – Salcedo and Mavinga – have been below par. The preponderance of issues on Toronto’s backline have submarined Bradley’s ability to make effective adjustments anywhere else on the field, and it’s become a negative feedback loop.

There is, of course, some help on the way. I’m sure you know that Lorenzo Insigne arrived last week. I don’t think there is any other way to play Insigne than as a left winger in a 4-3-3, so I’m pretty sure that formation is what TFC will play starting next week. And thus they’ll defend with better width across the front.

You might not have noticed that Insigne’s countryman, 35-year-old left back Domenico Criscito, also arrived last week. He might not play every single minute (Petrasso’s actually been more good than bad, moments like the above notwithstanding), but he’ll help, too, in the obvious way that veteran Italian defenders tend to help.

More to the point, though, is that Pozuelo remains conspicuously unsigned past the end of this year, and that there are now reports that Salcedo is being shopped (though there are family reasons involved there, not just performance reasons). I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Reds complete this offseason’s teardown that was, in retrospect, only half done, and rebuild a team where the attacking pieces fit better and the defensive pieces perform better. Which, to be clear, was the idea behind signing Salcedo in the first place.

It’ll be hard to do it on the fly, but that’s the situation TFC have put themselves into right now. This offseason’s gambit – to hire Bradley, to play ambitious soccer, to develop the kids, to make ambitious signings like Insigne – was a good one, I think, and will pay off in the long run.

But the short run’s been brutal, and personnel changes are badly needed.

The Catbird Seat

We’ve come almost to the end of the 10-game stretch that I said, from preseason, would give us a truer indication of how good Austin are/aren’t than that nine-game opening run against the league’s weaker sides. And while it was touch-and-go for a while at the start of this stretch, el Verde truly found their feet in June and have kept them into July. Following Monday night’s 3-2 win in Commerce City, over the past four games Austin have:

You can add asterisks or caveats if you want – Montréal aren’t the same without Djordje Mihailovic, and neither Charlotte nor Colorado are exactly the Sounders – but we’ve reached the point where we have enough of a sample size to say that Austin are a truly good team doing good team things.

Here, let’s unpack this:

Obviously it’s a mess from Mark-Anthony Kaye and Auston Trusty, either of whom could/should have dealt with that cross. But this is also just a smart, well-drilled team executing on their principles of play. And the principle at play here is “overload the flanks to pull defenders out of the middle; then if whoever’s on the ball has the chance to pick a cross with zero pressure, someone off the ball has to make a hard run up the gut.”

Look at this still:

rapids defenders

Again: this is a mess from Colorado. They should’ve dealt better with this whole thing.

But the point about Austin is that they have refined themselves to the point where they’re now punishing teams that fall apart like this pretty much no matter who they’re facing. They play with a resilience and a confidence, even after going down 2-0 in this one, that they didn’t have last year.

"The adjustments by the guys on the field to understand that running behind the line, the need to now get behind the line even though [Colorado] were really low block," Austin head coach Josh Wolff said afterward when talking about what he took away from the game. "To grab two goals and get back to even said a lot about us.

"It's an unbelievable effort, a great response."

In addition to that resilience and confidence, they’ve also benefited from having a consistent spine. Sebastián Driussi, scorer of the above goal, is out there every week playing at a Best XI level. Maxi Urruti is somehow, after a decade in the league, having his finest MLS season, while Danny Pereira has leveled up at d-mid and Alex Ring seems more at home as a No. 8. Toss in the massive year-over-year upgrade in central defense and the livewire spark Jon Gallagher has provided with his shift to left back, and it adds up. Austin aren’t where they are in the standings by accident.

Neither, of course, are Colorado. The Rapids have won just three games in four months and losses like this one – replete with blown leads and soft goals allowed – are starting to add up.

I will admit that I still look at this Rapids side and see a team that should want more of the ball. I think their best moments under Robin Fraser have come when they’ve been in possession, on the front foot and making opposing backlines bend until they break.

It’s gone in the other direction this year, though, as the Rapids have been both narrower and more direct. It hasn’t been by orders of magnitude or anything, but that tactical shift, combined with some personnel changes and injuries, has been enough to put Colorado in a very, very bad spot entering the second half of the season.

A few more things to ponder…

12. If you’re facing a team that’s missing their goalkeeper, a million of their defenders and all three of their actual d-mids via injury, what do you do? The answer is “you press the hell out of them and punish them for trying to build from the back, or make them give that up entirely.”

And so that’s what NYCFC tried to do on Sunday against visiting Atlanta United. And truth be told, they were mostly successful with it – the Pigeons created a ton of chances off their counterpress. But they walked out of Yankee Stadium with a 2-2 draw and only one point after, once again, a weird bit of defensive passivity:

This has become a hallmark of NYCFC under interim head coach Nick Cushing, who took over just under a month ago after Ronny Deila hopped the pond. Since then NYCFC are 0W-2L-3D and while City Football Group have traditionally shown a lot of patience with NYCFC managers – Deila didn’t get off to a good start, nor did Dome Torren before him, nor Patrick Vieira before him – Cushing might be pushing the limits here.

Clever movement and great finish from Dom Dwyer there, by the way. He’s now got four goals in just 233 regular-season minutes this year, and seems to be embracing life as a super-sub.

And overall, Atlanta deserve a ton of credit for continuing to try to play through that NYCFC press, turnovers be damned.

11. Andre Blake was the hero for Philly (you’ve heard that one before), saving Pedro Santos’s first-half penalty as the Union went to Columbus and came away with a scoreless draw.

Jim Curtin threw something of a curveball with his team’s formation, trotting them out in a 3-5-2 instead of the usual 4-4-2 diamond – mirroring Columbus’s new and preferred formation and trying to add a bit of defensive solidity in central midfield in the absence of the suspended Jose Martinez. It didn’t really work, though, as the Crew dominated both midfield and the game, forcing Philly back to a 4-4-2 at the midway point.

The Crew just couldn’t find a winner because Blake’s a superstar, and sometimes superstars can steal a result.

10. If you wanted a one-clip explainer for why Vancouver went out and spent a DP slot on a d-mid, Andrés Cubas provided it with Saturday night’s game-winner for the Whitecaps over visiting LAFC:

Cubas isn’t going to score many – maybe two or three a year – but he’s an Osvaldo Alonso-style field-shrinker who’s also got Ozzie-like smarts when it comes to reading passing lanes and keeping teams trapped in their own defensive third. In this instance, keeping LAFC trapped led directly to three points for the ‘Caps, who are now a very, very respectable 6W-2L-2D in their past 10 games.

And the past three, all Cubas starts? Two wins and a draw, and zero goals conceded. It’s probably worth mentioning that defenders like Ranko Veselinovic and Javain Brown have been playing their best ball of the year since Cubas’s arrival, and no, that’s not a coincidence, either.

9. Minnesota United completely dominated RSL for 70 minutes on Sunday night by getting wide and staying wide. Both the wingers, who played with chalk on their boots, and the fullbacks, who pushed high as often as possible, dragged RSL to the touchlines. And since RSL’s 4-4-2 is a formation that can get gappy when it’s strung out horizontally, and since Emanuel Reynoso is a magician in the gaps… well, you can probably guess who the Man of the Match was and why.

And also, since we’re here, this is our Pass of the Week:

Of course, the Loons completely fell apart in the six minutes after that third goal, turning a 3-0 laugher into a 3-2 nail-biter (credit to RSL’s xHumanSpirit as usual). But still, the win makes it two in a row for the Loons, who were in serious trouble as recently as a week ago. Now they’re only just under the playoff line.

8. Another late collapse for Nashville, who saw a 2-0 lead turn into a 2-2 home draw against a Timbers team that got something close to a vintage Eryk Williamson performance out of central midfield in the second half.

The ‘Yotes were the best team in MLS over the final half-hour of games last year, with a +16 goal differential. This year they’re -3 (which includes Sunday’s -2), with only four teams worse than that mark. They’ve conceded 10 of their 21 goals on the season in the final 30 minutes; only 10 teams are worse than that.

I’ve already spilled a lot of ink this year about Nashville’s inexplicable defensive lapses on set pieces (mostly cleared up recently) and the need to find someone besides the great Hany Mukhtar capable of making magic (still very much an issue). What I haven’t really touched on is that thus far in 2022 they just haven’t quite seemed as up for the fight.

I think there was some of that on display Sunday after Elliot Panicco’s misplay gifted Portland an entry back into the game. The error from Panicco was a bad one, but it’s also the type of error that 1) happens to every ‘keeper at some point, and 2) Nashville would just shrug off in 2021. They were exceptionally good at not compounding a bad moment and turning it into a bad half, or even a bad five minutes.

Not so this year, obviously. Williamson found Jaroslaw Niezgoda for the equalizer literally five minutes after Dairon Asprilla had made it 2-1.

Maybe it’s a consequence of the long road trip to start the season sucking all the good vibes away, or maybe it’s just natural for a team that’s made two deep playoff runs to kind of take the foot off the accelerator during the following regular season. Whatever the reason, Nashville are dropping points they took with relative ease last year, and have now won just twice in seven home games.

Portland, on the other hand, seem to be finding themselves a bit, and have put together a very nice little four-game unbeaten run.

7. Peter Vermes was not very pleased with RBNY after the visitors came to Kansas City and smash-banged their way to a 1-0 win, all three points courtesy of an Aaron Long set-piece header.

“Look, they won. They scored. We didn't,” Vermes said in the postgame. “We had a lot of chances at the end. So congrats to them from that perspective. But the perspective for a fan to watch that game, I’ll tell you right now, I wouldn't want to watch that kind of game. That's a mockery what took place on the field. Just the antics, I don't believe in it. I have no respect for it.”

Vermes was talking about both some late-game time-wasting and some early, middle and late-game physicality from a Red Bulls side that, even more than usual, was determined to make this contest more a battle of attrition than a soccer game. Energy Drink Soccer has always been more about the physical part of the game than the aesthetic part, and the group Gerhard Struber put out, playing their third game in their third different time zone in the past seven days, pushed that ethos to damn near its logical extent.

“From the technical side, I would say the game was not super sexy to watch,” Struber said afterward, and who am I to argue?

Regardless, I don’t particularly blame them for playing unsexy soccer this week. Everyone knows that’s the kind of ball they’re built for, and that’s the kind of ball they’ll play.

6. I think the most entertaining game of Sunday night was FC Cincinnati’s 2-2 draw at the Revs. Both teams are committed to playing open, attacking football, and with both teams missing their starting defensive midfielders, both were able to play open, attacking football right up the gut and into the box basically all night long.

So it felt like a track meet – an evenly matched one, though it produced a shot map that’s kind of stunning in its differences:

7422 Shot map Doyle

Here’s the Matt Polster effect: the Revs are usually better at generating shots from inside the box (66.9% as per TruMedia via Stats reform; ninth in the league) than Cincy (65.4%, good for 12th), and on top of that New England allow just 60.5% of the shots they face to come from inside the box, which is sixth in the league. Without Polster… well, they’re just not as good at limiting chance quality, are they? They need Polster back if they’re to start turning these fun draws into commanding wins.

Still, it’s now 10 unbeaten for New England, and they have to be very, very pleased with newcomers Dylan Borrero (he got his second goal to go with one assist in a shade over 400 minutes since joining up in the spring) and Djordje Petrovic (looking very much a worthy successor to Matt Turner).

5. The most entertaining game of the whole holiday weekend, however, took place on Monday night in Orlando. D.C. United saw Jake Mulraney lined up at left wingback and Kyle Smith at left center back in what felt like an impromptu 3-5-2 from Oscar Pareja and just absolutely went to town, pulling Mulraney – who’s naturally an attacker – way upfield and then making Smith defend on an island.

For Orlando, this was death. D.C. scored twice inside the first 10 minutes en route to a 5-3 win, their first in two months. Taxi Fountas got himself a hat-trick, and has been worth every penny United paid to get him out of his contract early.

Orlando, meanwhile, have won just once in regular-season play since mid-May. The strain of injuries (primarily to Antonio Carlos, who is badly missed) and a deep US Open Cup run seem to be wearing them down, though a second-half surge to make the scoreline respectable in this one (they actually made it 3-2 at one point, then 4-3 at another before Nigel Robertha applied the stoppage time coup de grace) maybe points to a reason for optimism next time out.

And no, Julian Gressel, I am not giving you Pass of the Week for this. But I will give Pedro Gallese, who very clearly knows he should've done better, Face of the Week here:

4. Charlotte collected the first road win of their MLS existence, going down to Houston and coming away with all three points by a 2-1 margin. A Matias Vera own goal and a clever finish from Andre Shinyashiki, his fourth goal in just 520 Charlotte minutes, were enough to render Fafa Picault’s late finish moot.

They forced Houston into 22 crosses from open play – which is to say, quite a few! The Dynamo have generally been good about not settling for that, but Charlotte didn’t just coax them into crosses; they coaxed the hosts into crosses from low-percentage spots:

7422 Cross map Doyle

These aren’t pullbacks from the endline or dimed deliveries from the optimal assist zone; these are no-hopers from the touchlines. And those, by and large, do not work.

Houston are just 3W-8L-0D in their past 11 after their promising start.

3. Miami keep being hard to beat. FC Dallas had them on the ropes from damn near the entirety of Monday night’s affair, but then in the 89th minute Robert Taylor got loose down the right, Leo Campana got inside his defender at the six, and suddenly what should’ve been a comfortable Dallas win turned into a well-earned 1-1 draw for the visitors.

There’s not a ton of glamor to how this Miami team plays, even when “star” DP Pipita Higuain is out on the field (he was for most of Monday’s game, and I won’t blame you if you didn’t notice). What they’re good at is staying in a compact mid- or low-block (it was a 5-4-1 tonight, though usually it’s a 4-3-3), limiting chance quality, and just hammering at your fullbacks with a never-ending supply of fleet-footed wingers.

They have lost just once in two months. They are 6W-3L-3D in their past 12 games, going back to mid-April.

Look, I’ll say it: in some ways the sanctions, which forced the front office to go after young players who could be developed and solid, unglamorous pieces who could just provide simple, mistake-free soccer, were the best thing to happen to this team. Miami have an identity now and a team ethos, and the next time they go for a big-name DP they will have a team to fit him into, rather than trying to fit an entire team around that DP.

2. Greg Vanney finally caved to the inevitable and started both Chicharito and Dejan Joveljic up top on Monday night against visiting CF Montréal. By halftime it was 2-0 with both guys on the scoreboard, and Joveljic embracing the moment by doing Chicharito’s signature celebration after burying his PK.

Vanney switched to a 4-2-3-1 in the 56th minute, at which point Rayan Raveloson stole the show (with some help from Sacha Kljestan) via his second-half brace for the 4-0 final, but I am absolutely certain every Galaxy fan will be coming out of this one talking about the two-forward alignment LA started the game in. And they will be right to, because the Galaxy have been unstoppable with both Chicharito and Joveljic out there this season.

It was a bad performance and a bad loss for Montréal, but I’m having a tough time reading much into it. This team had just won three of their past four, and now they go home for two games against two of the worst teams in the league. They’re fine.

1. And finally, the Quakes have been nowhere near as Quakes-y since Matias Almeyda left a couple of months ago, but whoo boy did they pull on from the archives in Saturday night’s 2-1 win over the visiting Fire:

They are now 6W-4L-3D across all competitions after Alex Covelo took over for Almeyda, under whom they’d started the year 0W-4L-3D. The big changes have been that 1) Covelo plays a 4-2-3-1 pretty much every game out, and 2) he plays practically everyone in their best spots, and 3) he has completely scrapped Almeyda’s insane man-marking scheme.

Often, simpler is better. It certainly has been for San Jose, though for the Fire it’s starting to feel like every single week brings a new reason to go back to the drawing board.