Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Inter Miami's balance issue, Maxi Moralez's brilliance & more from Matchday 18


We’ve got a few formation shifts, a new leader in the Golden Boot presented by Audi race, a new leader in the Wooden Spoon race, the return of a legend, some mighty goalkeeper struggles and everything else from around the league following Matchday 18.

And in we go:

Cool About It

A week ago it felt like Inter Miami were, along with FC Cincinnati, starting to put a little difference between themselves and the field. They’d gone to Vancouver without Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Sergio Busquets and come away with all three points anyway. They’d won seven of eight. They had no losses in 10, a stretch dating back to mid-March, had survived myriad injuries and were starting to see those guys return to the lineup and return to form.

And so they were staring at two home games against teams struggling just to climb into the playoff spots – Atlanta midweek and St. Louis on the weekend – with their star trio reasonably well-rested and manager Tata Martino mostly spoiled for choice elsewhere. Six points and a happy send-off to Copa América for Leo awaited, right?


First Atlanta came to town and gave the Herons a 3-1 loss, and then St. Louis came in on the weekend and scored three more goals, walking out of Chase Stadium with a point thanks to the 3-3 final. There was no happy send-off, and instead of hitting mid-season with a substantial gap, taking just one point from the past six has allowed the pack to reel them in. Miami are still technically atop the Supporters’ Shield race on 35 points, but Cincy – who had their own midweek stumble – are ahead of them on PPG, while RSL have now equaled Miami’s 1.94 PPG and are ahead on goal differential.

Tata is careful never to say much at all that’s interesting in his postgame pressers. But sometimes even he can’t help himself.

“We have to continue insisting and talking to the boys about the mistakes we make, especially the losses, they are very painful.”

For Miami, those losses come from two primary places:

  1. Set pieces. They routinely get battered on restarts, as has been the case all year. Two of St. Louis’s three goals on the weekend came via set pieces.
  2. Build-out patterns from the back that leave the center backs exposed.

That first point… I don’t know if I should say “it is what it is” but I don’t know how to fix it, either. To my eye, Miami’s not doing anything special (either to the good or to the bad) defending on set pieces. Like just about everyone else they run a hybrid man/zonal system, and like everyone else they have their best aerial presence(s) playing center field, and like everyone else they’ve mostly given up keeping players on the posts.

They get crushed anyway, constantly losing the first ball (or occasionally, as happened Saturday, winning the first ball directly into their own net).

The build-out patterns, though… man. You can see this Tomás Avilés hospital ball leads directly to a St. Louis goal:

Sometimes Avilés does it to himself, as above. Other times, Miami’s ultra-aggressive build structure – two flying fullbacks, aggressive midfielders, a front line that doesn’t really track back – does it to him. As so:

That one didn’t lead directly to a goal. Instead, it led directly to a corner kick that led to a goal. Small mercies.

And so this is where we were with Miami: When they actually get the ball to their attackers, they string together some of the prettiest sequences in the league and score goals for fun – 42 in 18 games puts them on pace for one of the highest-scoring seasons in MLS history. But their CBs (especially with Nico Freire out for the year) are too hit-and-miss with their distribution; their structure before they get into attack is wildly aggressive and forces those CBs to defend on an island (which they do relatively well, given the degree of difficulty); and they are always vulnerable in the air.

They are both good and bad in eye-catching ways. In a vacuum that’d be fine, but given they haven’t really improved the bad parts since the start of the season, it’s probably time to worry a bit.

As for St. Louis, this was a very good point and overall I actually think they’re a better team than last year.

  • In field tilt, they’ve jumped from mid-table last year to second behind only the Crew.
  • Their expected assists per 90 has jumped from about .75 last season to over 1.00 in 2024.
  • They’ve increased their number of passes in the attacking third by about 20%.
  • Touches in the opponent box have jumped from about 20.5 per game last year to 28.7 per game this year, which is a 40% increase.

In all that spells out a team playing with more control and intentionality than last year, but one that’s been missing the type of top-end quality that can turn those final third and box entries into clear-cut chances. At the same time, the regression to the mean that hit down the stretch and into the playoffs last season has carried on into this year for both goalkeeper Roman Bürki and the cadre of attackers at Bradley Carnell’s disposal.

Eduard Löwen’s return should help – it certainly did in this one, as he had a hand in the first and third goals. But there’s got to be pressure on St. Louis’s front office to find an elite attacking piece when the window opens in July, or their current spot below the red line is going to become a permanent home.

Letter to an Old Poet

For the past couple of months, I’ve been writing about how New York City FC have evolved, under Nick Cushing, from a possession-and-field-position team into one that’s largely sacrificed both in order to acquire room to counterattack into.

This is smart in a lot of ways, the most obvious being that it’s easier to create high-quality chances on the counter than in any other phase of play. Only slightly less obvious is that it’s easier to defend if most of the players on your team are keeping the ball in front of them and don’t have to worry all that much about the space behind them.

But what we’ve seen both in MLS and around the world is that that particular game model has a lower ceiling than some others. And the game model that City Football Group clubs have become famous and largely admired for is that possession-and-field-position approach Cushing was forced, at least temporarily, to scrap. So while the Pigeons had gone 7W-1L-2W in their previous 10 matchdays coming into this weekend, and while that did not feel fluky (this team is very good no matter their game model), there was always a suspicion that they’d try to evolve back into something more like what they were from 2016 to 2022.

And then Maxi Moralez came back, and within a quarter-hour, the work was done.

The Argie legend popped his ACL last September but, not even nine months later, was fit enough to step onto the field in the 75th minute on Friday night at Yankee Stadium. He was coming into what was, at the time, a tense and fun 1-1 game against a San Jose side that looked much, much better than their current record. And then this happened:


Did NYCFC blow the Quakes out entirely because of Maxi? Well, I’d argue they were having more of the ball, relative to their recent game model, and using it well even before he came in. They might’ve scored three or four goals anyway.

But once he got out there… Maxi is a genius, a true midfield conductor. He’s the guy who makes those positional advantages sing and turns possession into penetration. Watch here how he recognizes the space and uses it to flatten out San Jose’s midfield and backlines:

“I mean you could sit here now for the next five hours and talk about Maxi Moralez. Since I've been here, he is the greatest player to ever play for our football club. He's had the biggest impact. He's almost like having a coach on the field when he plays like he did tonight. It's an absolute masterclass,” Cushing said afterward.

“I think you have certain players in the game that can literally just pick the game up and just put it in his pocket and just almost conduct the game like the conductor conducts the orchestra. He's that guy.”

Being that guy allows Santiago Rodríguez, who wears the No. 10, to poach like a second forward, or to be strictly an individual creator. This isn’t a knock on Rodríguez, who has been the best player on one of the best teams in the league, and whose strengths both creating and finishing in the open field are weirdly underrated league-wide. He’s really, really good.

He’s a much different player than Moralez, though. You can see it at the start of the above clip – even with Santi dropping deep he’s not really orchestrating the midfield. Instead, he plays a simple ball to Maxi and then shifts into space interpreter mode, which pays off with what turned out to be the game-winning goal.

I suspect there’ll be many more moments like that to come.

As for the Quakes… again I’ll say they’re better than their record. But they probably need 34 points from their final 18 games to make the postseason, and that just feels like a bridge too far no matter how good they looked for the first hour of this one.

A few more things to ponder…

11. And here’s senior Armchair Analyst correspondent Calen Carr, who was on the scene for Chicago’s come-from-behind 2-1 win over the Galaxy – their first win over the Galaxy in almost 15 years:

When the Fire conceded a fourth-minute goal at home for the second time in four days — dispatched this time from the penalty spot by Riqui Puig — this match had all of the makings of a “here we go again” performance for Chicago Fire faithful who came into this match winless in nine games.

Instead, the Fire fought back. In their last three matches Frank Klopas has shifted to a back five with Carlos Terán, now bracketed by two center backs, having the freedom to do what he does best — attack the ball and take the opposing nine out of the game. In the past week, he’s done exactly that against Christian Benteke, Luis Muriel, and in this one, took care of Miguel Berry with ease.

LA rested and rotated Dejan Joveljic, Jalen Neal, Diego Fagúndez, and John McCarthy, and as a result, looked all out of sorts. When things go wrong, they too often revert to “give Riqui the ball and let him create” versus sticking with Vanney’s more disciplined patterns and positional play. It’s not the first time the Galaxy have struggled against low blocks (Charlotte, Nashville) and it will be something they have to fix as teams try to limit their transition moments and space for Puig.

Both of the Fire’s goals came from Brian Gutiérrez. With Xherdan Shaqiri being sent early to the Euros with Switzerland, the 20-year-old homegrown has finally gotten the consistent chance to play centrally instead of the wing. Scouts have told me for a while his final product and defensive work rate are the next step for him. Shaqiri brings neither of those attributes, though, so it’s been hard to understand why Gutiérrez wouldn’t be given the keys, and even harder after he displayed both in this game. He won numerous challenges in the middle of the park and the way he immediately drives and glides past opponents with the ball at his feet is special. This had the feeling of a breakout game for him and an important foothold for Chicago to not fall further off the pace.

I’ll chip in (hi, it’s Doyle again) with two points:

  • Since switching to the back five, Chicago are unbeaten. It’s only a three-match run, and I’m not saying that the Fire’s about to charge up the standings. But it’s been a lot better than the first three months of the season.
  • Kellyn Acosta has played as the No. 6 in the past two of those outings, and this is the spot that he needs to embrace. His experience, two-footedness and range of passing all make him a weapon, and more than that, he’s got to be the guy who runs the show for Chicago to pull out of “embarrassment” status.

10. Toronto and D.C. played to a wild draw down at Buzzard Point in a match that featured 30 shots, five expected goals, four actual goals, and two red cards – both of which were earned by the, uh, Reds, and both of which left the door ajar for D.C.’s furious late rally for the 2-2 final.

Let’s talk about the start, tho. This is probably going to drive Troy Lesesne nuts:

The whole point of playing Federico Bernardeschi as a wingback is to take the risk of having him cheat way upfield on these sequences. Lesesne knew as much and actually adjusted his team's shape from a 3-5-2 to a 3-4-2-1 (the idea being that a double pivot could more easily rotate over to take away that passing lane), but it didn’t matter.

The other note I want everyone to make here is how many TFC players are crashing the box. That is fundamental to how they play, and it was fundamental to how John Herdman’s Canada teams played. It’s translated quickly.

There will be lots of sturm und drang about Bernardeschi’s sending-off and the stoppage time penalty that earned D.C. the equalizer. For that, I will direct you toward Instant Replay. Yell at Wiebe, not me.

In the end, for United, coming back to rescue a point was obviously a good thing. But they’re winless in six, Benteke came off via some sort of injury (it’s not clear yet what it was, or how severe), and they now have a half-season’s worth of not collecting full points from games they’ve largely controlled.

9. A Pedro Gallese howler gifted John Tolkin the winner in RBNY’s rather lifeless 1-0 win over visiting Orlando on Saturday night.

I’ve spilled a lot of ink on what’s going wrong for the Lions in attack this year, and that is still determinative. Just as important, though, is that Gallese has fallen off a cliff. Most advanced data sites have him as a bottom-three ‘keeper in the league, having conceded about five more goals than he should’ve based on the shots he’s faced.

8. Madness in Chester as Montréal and Philly both finished with 10 men and both technically earned a come-from-behind point in a 2-2 draw.

Jim Curtin tried a 3-5-2 for the first 45, but it didn’t really work. They reverted to the 4-4-2 diamond for the second half and things were going well – they’d turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead – before Jack Elliott’s 63rd-minute red. Again, I will defer to Wiebe on that one.

The Union have one win in 10. Montréal have one win in nine. For what it’s worth I don’t think there’s anything structurally wrong with either team (especially the Union, whose underlying numbers are good). It just looks more like a raw talent issue.

7. I think there’s a raw talent issue for Minnesota as well – they are missing a few dynamic backline and midfield pieces if they really want to compete for trophies. But for now, they have Tani Oluwaseyi and Robin Lod, and hot damn has that been fun:

When your No. 9 and your No. 10 are doing that off a throw-in, you know they’re tuned in. And having guys who are match-winners in those two spots gives the rest of the team larger margins for error and a huge opportunity for success. And hence you have a Loons side that’s third in the West and on track for a 60-point season with just under half the year done.

Tani, who I wrote about last week, had a goal and that assist above in Minnesota’s 3-1 cakewalk past a cratering (they’re dead last) Sporting KC side. He has ripped the starting center forward job from Teemu Pukki and, barring injury, will be keeping it for as long as he’s in St. Paul.

Lod, meanwhile, has 5g/10a in about 1000 minutes. To put it into perspective: Bebelo Reynoso’s most productive season was 16 combined goals + assists in 2500 minutes.

This team is already good. With two DP slots open and the summer window opening in six weeks, they have an opportunity to be more than that.

6. New England peeled themselves off the bottom of the Supporters’ Shield standings with a 2-1 win at Nashville, who couldn’t build any momentum following their shock midweek win at Cincinnati.

Dylan Borrero assisted on Carles Gil’s opener, which marks the Colombian winger’s first goal contribution since doing his ACL last April.

5. God, it’s nice to see LAFC playing ball again. They’ve been much more of a possession team over the past seven, eight weeks or so, and it’s paid off: Their 1-0 win over visiting FC Dallas pushes the Black & Gold to 7W-1L-2D in their past 10 games, largely because they’ve remembered they can build chances with the ball, as so:

That pattern of play, with Mateusz Bogusz dropping in as a false 9 to become a playmaker with Denis Bouanga making an outside-in run, is something we’ve seen more and more of as the season’s gone along. I would still almost always pick a true forward over a false 9 (and bear in mind that a lot of true forwards like, say, Olivier Giroud, can and do make that sort of play on the regular), but Bogusz has done well with that spot this season. He’s a talent.

LAFC climbed to second in the West with the win and are, by the underlying numbers, far and away the best team in MLS.

4. First in the West, second via most underlying numbers and third in the Shield race? That’d be Real Salt Lake who drilled visiting Austin 5-1 in Utah on Saturday night. To say this one was over by halftime is greatly understating things:

There are too many things I want to say about Chicho Arango, who had 3g/1a in this one playing as kind of a No. 10:

  • His first goal, which came from just past the midfield stripe, is brilliant because he no-looks the whole thing. At no point in his run-up does he tip off poor Brad Stuver that he’s about to go yard.
  • The hat trick gives him 16 goals on the season. The single-season RSL record is 17. I think he’s gonna get it!
  • The four-goal contributions give him 25 on the year, which he’s reached in 17 games. That makes him the third-fastest player in MLS history to that mark behind Messi (this year; 12 games) and Carlos Vela (16 games in 2019).
  • He now has a commanding, three-goal lead in the Golden Boot presented by Audi race.
  • I think he’s probably now edged back in front of Messi in the MVP race.

RSL are unbeaten in 13. They have the league’s best goal differential, young players who are rising and two open DP slots to play with this summer. Wooo boy.

Austin are now winless in three, and this game kicked off a span in which they play four of five on the road.

3. Vancouver have started to get right with two straight wins, this weekend’s coming 2-1 against visiting Colorado. The Rapids badly mistimed a backline step in their own box deep into second-half stoppage time to give Damir Kreilach a clear look for the winner on a night in which the ‘Caps did not play particularly well.

Of course, Colorado didn’t play particularly well either and have now taken just one point from the past 12 on offer. They’ve conceded 13 goals in those four games, and while I’m not pointing the finger solely at Zack Steffen, the bad data’s starting to pile up: in American Soccer Analysis’s database, which goes back to 2013, Steffen’s got the worst shot-stopping marks – by a mile – of any ‘keeper with more than 1500 minutes in a season.

To put it into perspective, Gallese’s giving up 0.30 more goals per 90 than he should be. No one in the ASA database has even gone +0.40 or worse. Steffen, right now, at +0.55.

Neither of the two back-ups currently on the roster – highly rated homegrown Adam Beaudry and journeyman Ethan Bandre – have looked set to make the jump in their MLS NEXT Pro minutes thus far, so there’s not a ready-made replacement immediately available. But it’s something that Padraig Smith and that front office need to think hard about ahead of the transfer window opening up next month.

2. Our Pass of the Week goes to Héctor Herrera for this bit of brilliance in Houston’s 2-2 draw at Portland:

That low “ooohhh” from color commentator Jalil Anibaba says a million words, right?

By definition, an intra-conference road draw is a good result, though I’m sure Ben Olsen will be raging at coughing up two separate one-goal leads.

Phil Neville, meanwhile, was not happy about conceding those leads at home in the first place. His Timbers have played better of late, going 3W-1L-1L in their past five, but now play three of their next five on the road, and all against West foes.

This stretch will go a long way in determining whether there’s a postseason for Portland.

1. And finally, Charlotte went down to Atlanta on Sunday evening and came away with three precious points thanks to their 3-2 win over the spiraling Five Stripes. The Crown were brave and relentless in the second half, pressing with a five throughout before retreating into a low block to absorb and counter. DP winger Liel Abada had a brace in his best performance since joining from Celtic.

Atlanta have now lost five straight at home and that feelgood midweek win down at Miami sure seems more like a black swan event than any sort of indication that things have been figured out. The main culprit right now is the lack of organization between the midfield and backline, which was especially evident in the second and third Charlotte goals.

They’re now down to 13th in the East, while Charlotte are up to fifth.