Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Josef unloads on Atlanta, Williamson runs the show in Seattle & more from Week 19

Just an absolutely unhinged weekend of soccer, including one team tying the league record for worst loss ever, another recording its worst home loss ever, and a third recording its worst home loss in a dozen years.

There was a 101st-minute goal and 103rd-minute red card, both the latest ever (regular season only, obviously) in 27 seasons of MLS’s existence, and those came in the same game. For the first time ever, an MLS team drew three penalties – those all came in the same half.

And on what amounted to the very last kick of the weekend, poor Damion Lowe became the first player ever to score a stoppage-time own goal in a 1-0 loss.

The most “normal” game of the weekend was either a typically thrilling El Trafico (five goals, lots of fun!) or an RBNY trip to FC Cincinnati that saw multiple stoppage-time cards and both teams absolutely furious as the final whistle blew.

In we go…

The King finally snaps

“What happened today? What happened [is] what has been happening for the past three months or so.”

Josef Martinez had had enough. He had just been on the field for another loss, and after this one he and the rest of his team had been cloistered in the locker room for an hour before any of them came to meet the press. It was a team talk, one that head coach Gonzalo Pineda called “a platform to express ourselves” after the humiliating, feckless 3-0 home loss (that club-record home loss I mentioned above) to Austin FC on Saturday night.

But Josef was not done expressing himself. After that team talk he came out and gave voice to the frustration that’s clearly been boiling in himself, his coach, some teammates and, judging by the reaction on social media and in the stadium (68,000 disgruntled fans make for some very loud boos), the entire fanbase. He apologized, he took blame, he obliquely compared this team to 2017’s Atlanta United side, and then admitted it wasn’t fair to compare the two teams because so much had changed.

And then, as if acknowledging that triggered something in his soul, he unloaded.

“We play because we have to play, but in training some players don’t have that energy, people don’t know what we have to do or they don’t recognize or appreciate the jersey and what we’re doing for a long time. Probably that’s the [bigger] problem, because the injuries are not the problem,” Josef said. “We play soccer, and you can have an injury every day. And some people think ‘oh, because we lost this guy or this guy’… we all make a mistake. We are professional and we are not kids anymore.

“If you come here, you have to know what we have to do. So, if you don’t come here for the 100 percent, probably you don’t have to choose this club to play. That’s a message for everyone: If you want to bring guys, it’s because they want to play here and it’s not because of business and that’s happened for a long time.”

Josef put his finger on what so many who cover Atlanta so closely have been saying for so long: that the years of coaching instability and roster deconstruction have robbed this team of the core that pushed them to the pinnacle of the league in the first place. Players with experience, quality and personality like Michael Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz retired, which happens. Other players with experience, quality and personality, though – players like Tito Villalba, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Julian Gressel and Darlington Nagbe – have been sold, traded or just moved on, with the front office always fixated on going out into the market to sign the next big name or the next young phenom, who will surely be better than the player they were brought in to replace.

Uniformly, those signings have not been better than what they were brought in to replace. Uniformly, shipping out the old core has torn down the title-winning team that had originally been built. In that way, the heart of one of the best and most exciting teams in MLS history has been winnowed out.

Anyway, Josef undersold it when he said what happened this weekend is what’s been happening for the past three months, because in actuality it’s been happening for the past three years. The gutting of that roster has left this team not just adrift, but adrift, sinking, and almost helpless against teams they can’t simply overwhelm with sheer talent:

  • In 2020, they won just three of 17 games against playoff teams.
  • In 2021, they won just once in 15 tries.
  • In 2022, they’ve won just once in nine against teams currently above the line (that came in Week 3 against expansion side Charlotte FC).

These games have not gotten closer, nor has the team shown more fight and heart. Austin murked Atlanta, pouncing on the types of defensive miscues that have been just killing the Five Stripes all year long no matter who’s been injured and who’s been healthy. They struggle to track runners, they can’t build from the back without turning it over, they fail at simple things like clearing the ball when it's right there at their feet.

The number of Atlanta players reacting sluggishly or indifferently on this sequence is overshadowed only by the number of Atlanta players reacting not at all (and to be fair, Josef’s one of those):

The game’s not over at 2-0 down – just ask Columbus. And there is no tactical analysis here; this is just effort, which is why Josef unloaded.

It’s also why Pineda came out of that team talk sounding like a man who was going to spend the next few training sessions rethinking absolutely everything.

“We’re going to put more desire to the things we do,” Pineda said. “I want to start with better choices in the lineups, and I’m going to make sure that everybody fights.”

That would be a nice beginning. It wouldn’t fix everything – “everything” has changed so much that I don’t think it can actually be fixed. But it might actually start rebuilding something reminiscent of what Atlanta once had, and yet new in its own right. It might start creating a team that can deliver on its promise and potential, instead of one that lays one disappointment after another, end-to-end, year after year. It might give the next sold-out stadium full of fans something to cheer for, rather than something to boo for 90 minutes.

For Atlanta fans, it’s been a long while since they’ve looked out onto the field and seen that.

As for Austin, their fans are getting the above almost every single week, and this game marked the end of the 10-game stretch that I thought would define them for the season. They aced the test, going 5W-3L-2D, including a 4W-0L-1D stretch over the past five games.

They are second in the Western Conference and second in the Supporters’ Shield race. They are not going to disappear.

The Williamson Effect

The Portland Timbers disappeared for the first part of the season as they recovered from myriad injuries as well as their disappointment from the home PK shootout loss in last year’s MLS Cup. And so from the season’s start in February to mid-June they won just three times in 16 games, often looking like a team with no real ideas beyond absorbing pressure and hoping that they could bend enough not to break.

Things have changed since then, and Saturday’s massive 3-0 win at Seattle – the Sounders’ worst home loss in MLS play since May of 2010 – is a giant neon sign advertising as much. While the Timbers still do a lot of bend-don’t-break stuff, they are playing more on the front foot, with more purpose and ruthlessness. Shaking off the early-season cobwebs is a part of that; getting key players back from injury is the other.

And that is by way of saying that Portland have the ability to manipulate the shape of the opposing midfield now, collapsing it, opening gaps and exploiting channels through the lines and in behind. They can do that because Eryk Williamson is that dude. The 25-year-old is maybe the best in the league at dribbling at defenders with the purpose of either drawing them to him, or freezing them – as he does in the clip below – then playing accurate, and often decisive passes into the gaps his patience on the ball has created:

This is a good chunk of what analysts mean when they talk about how certain central midfielders have the ability to manipulate the opposition, about how they can create time and space. In this case, Williamson creates time and space for his teammates by toying with the Sounders’ double pivot, putting Kelyn Rowe and Albert Rusnak in a situation where they have to decide whether to hold their shape or step to him. He just dribbles slowly at them, head up, until they have to make a choice.

As soon as they make that choice and decide they have to step, Williamson forces a cascade of failures in Seattle’s shape. He hits a third-line pass that splits the d-mids, which causes CB Jackson Ragen to step up. But Ragen’s a beat too late to get to Santi Moreno, whose two-touch lay-off puts the ball back into Williamson’s path with no pressure on him, and a suddenly unbalanced backline in front of him.

Most central midfielders would take a touch here to settle the ball, survey the field and try to hit a killer pass. But Williamson’s got this whole sequence running at his rhythm now, and that means a one-time, delicate little chip directly into Diego Chara’s run, which has forced Seattle left back Nouhou Tolo to collapse central as the cascade of failures trickles down the line.

And just like that – because Williamson was patient in freezing Rowe and Rusnak; because he was precise in his pass to Moreno; because he was quick in his chip to Chara – Sebastian Blanco is in the final third with time and space and the ball on his foot.

That is how you manipulate a defense. It’s not about playing the ball as quickly as possible every time; it’s about using the opponent’s aggressiveness against them, choosing the right moment to hit the right pass to give your attackers maximum leverage in the final third. That is why a pass before the pass (or in this case, a pass before the pass before the pass, and a pass before the pass before the pass before the pass before the pass) guy is worth his weight in gold.

Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer called that goal “classic Portland,” and in a lot of ways he’s right, since this was technically a counterattack and the Timbers have been almost exclusively a counterattacking team for the better part of a decade now. But with Williamson on the field, those counters don’t always have to go lightning fast; they can proceed upfield at a different rhythm, one that scrambles the defense instead of simply outracing it (this is especially the case when Williamson starts deeper, as he did on Saturday).

“Excellent. He was very good, I mean, you know how good he is on the ball,” Timbers head coach Gio Savarese said about Williamson afterward on the FOX postgame. “His movement is the key – how he is able to find himself in good areas, how he dribbles through the lines. And he did a phenomenal job as he did last week\] in [Nashville as well.”

The goal is always “get the ball onto the foot of your No. 10 with time and space” but the how of that was not so clear for the Timbers team in the first half of the season. They’d been missing this since Williamson tore his ACL last summer, and it’s not a coincidence that since he returned to something approaching full health four games ago, Portland’s got three wins and a draw. They are now on the cusp of the playoff race, a point below the line and rising.

The Sounders have gone in the other direction lately, with two losses in their past three. Attrition has played a role – they are really missing Joao Paulo (and Obed Vargas), while Ragen seems to have hit the rookie wall in recent weeks. They also allowed the bizarre run of road dominance in this rivalry to continue, as road teams are now an almost unbelievable 10-1-1 in the past dozen meetings between these two sides.

And on top of all that, they let the Timbers ruin the unveiling of the CCL championship banner. They took a risk scheduling that for a rivalry game and, well, they found out.

“To fall flat on our faces like that really sucks,” Schmetzer said. “I guarantee we will try to fix it.”

A few more things to ponder…

12. LAFC are evolving into a counterattacking team, too. That was at least part of the story following Friday night's 3-2 win over the visiting Galaxy in the latest edition of El Trafico, which continues to deliver.

LAFC are still one of the league's most ambitious teams, and will still ball out if you give them room to play. But they’re getting more of their expected goals, and more of their actual goals in transition play than ever before as per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, and beyond that, the margins matter. A few years ago they were among the league leaders in possession, up around 57 or 58 percent. These days they're down around 53 percent, and are totally content to put in performances like this one, where they take a lead, absorb, and end up with around 45 percent of the ball.

"They are not the team that likes to dominate the game," the Galaxy's Victor Vazquez said afterward. "You know, they are trying always to do more like counter attacks because they have the speed in front and we tried to avoid that by controlling and having the ball as much as possible."

Bear in mind that this is true of LAFC before they even have Gareth Bale, who didn't get to make his debut this weekend. Bale's plenty technical, obviously – you don't get to the level he's hit if you're not – but the reason he ended up at Madrid instead of, say, Barcelona is because he's always been better playing in a system that allows him space to run into. The Black & Gold’s modified tactical approach should allow him plenty of that.

As for the Galaxy, the silver lining is that they finally got a goal from one of their wingers, as Samuel Grandsir wrong-footed Maxime Crepeau for a very temporary equalizer. But they’re still struggling to shoot the gap between scoring goals (they basically don’t if they don’t play with two forwards) and exerting control (they don’t have enough of it against good teams in a 4-4-2).

I maintain that a 3-5-2 is the best answer, but Greg Vanney remains reluctant.

11. Philly finally got the attacking performance they've been waiting months for, tying a league record for margin of victory by pumping a touchdown and extra point past an extremely, almost comically hapless D.C. United side in a 7-0 win in Chester on Friday night. Julian Carranza had a hat-trick (and a missed PK! And a missed sitter! He could’ve had five goals!!) while Ale Bedoya bagged himself a brace, as did Mikael Uhre.

Almost everything went right for the hosts, who scored as many goals in 90 minutes as they'd managed in the previous two months.

“They out-competed us, they out-worked us, out-played us, and I don’t have a lot of explanations,” said D.C.'s interim head coach Chad Ashton, who drops to 3W-7L-2D with a -16 goal differential across all competitions since taking over for Hernan Losada. “It’s embarrassing. I apologize to our fans, apologize to our management. I apologize for such a poor performance.”

Obviously it was grim for D.C., but this is just glorious soccer from Philly, a picture-perfect example of how to turn press into possession into penetration into the net. I’m giving them a shared Pass of the Week:

The Union get into spots like this pretty reliably (it’s why the advanced metrics like them even though they don’t usually pass the ball all that well and don’t possess it basically at all), but have lacked any sort of consistent cutting-edge since April. Maybe pumping seven past a rival will get them untracked long-term.

10. Not much happened in the first 45 minutes of Minnesota’s come-from-behind 3-1 win at Vancouver, but when new ‘Caps DP Andres Cubas didn’t come out after the break (reportedly because of tightness in his groin), the smart money had to be on the visitors.

And so it went. It took five minutes for Kemar Lawrence to answer Lucas Cavallini’s 66th-minute opener, and over the next 20 minutes two colossal defensive breakdowns gifted the Loons two more looks that they were only too happy to finish off.

Minnesota have nine goals in their past three games, all of them wins in six-pointers against fellow West teams in the playoff hunt. They’re now staring at a two-game homestand against two Wooden Spoon contenders and appear to have resurrected a season that, as of late spring, looked to be dying a slow and unceremonious death.

9. There was something in the air in the Bronx, man:

NYCFC went 2-for-3 on those penalties, all of which were awarded in the first half (I was not a fan of the second call – be sure to check out Instant Replay for more on that one) as the Pigeons got their first win, by 4-2, under interim manager Nick Cushing.

There remains, however, an inclination toward passive back-foot defending from NYCFC in their own defensive third that is about three levels beyond concerning. We saw it again in this one, as both a lack of pressure on the ball and a lack of connectedness off the ball along the backline gave the Revs an opening to bring it back to 3-2 late in the second half.

Taty Castellanos drove the final nail into the coffin minutes later, but again: this is a real worry for the hosts, because this is the exact same type of defensive passivity that has repeatedly cost NYCFC points since Cushing took over. I do not have an explanation for it.

Anyway, the result also marked the end of New England’s 10-game unbeaten run which led to some super-tasty Bruce Arena quotes afterward. Regardless, I think this result is one they should just put into the bin and not even think about now that it’s done.

8. The Red Bulls make a bet, every single time out, that it’s worth it to play a high line. It allows them to force turnovers in great spots, and as per the gegenpressing bible, turnovers in great spots are a better playmaker than any No. 10 who’s ever lived.

The trade-off is that high line means they give up a ton of full-field transitions, and chances in behind just in general. Mitigating that high line is the presence of Carlos Coronel, perhaps the league’s best sweeper-’keeper.

Coronel had himself yet another outstanding day, keeping RBNY in it early as FC Cincinnati piled on the pressure and piled up the chances before the tide turned in the second half. At that point it was time for Cincy’s ‘keeper, young Roman Celentano, to steal the rest of the show.

In the end the 1-1 draw might’ve flattered the Red Bulls a bit, but it just reaffirms that in playing the way they do with the personnel they have, they become a very tough team to beat.

7. You have to be really, really precise if you’re going to play outside-in from the backline in building out. It’s not something you see from a lot of teams, because if you’re not ultra-precise, you give up this exact goal:

I give credit to the Reds for fighting back after conceding that goal, taking a 2-1 lead and heading into stoppage time and looking like they were set to pocket all three home points against the Quakes. But the Quakes found a 92nd-minute equalizer as the Reds found themselves committing yet another inexplicable defensive breakdown for the 2-2 final.

“The first goal we gave up was a poor goal,” Toronto head coach Bob Bradley said afterward. “But then the response before the half was better and overall in the second half we do step up in a more aggressive way. We do play at a higher tempo and now you've got to finish the game. So it's just a game you have to win. When you get a good response, when you get some goals, when you have a chance now at the very end to just finish a game, take your points, reward yourselves, then it's impossible that at the end you don't make a play or two.”

6. Caleb Porter’s mostly had his Crew side playing out of a 3-5-2 for the past month, but after a completely listless first half in which Columbus generated nothing and saw the Fire take a deserved 2-0 lead, he switched his team back to his preferred 4-2-3-1 for the second 45, bringing on some wingers and giving new DP center forward Cucho Hernandez his debut just past the hour mark.

And all of the above sparked something, because Columbus turned rampant. Derrick Etienne Jr. got himself a brace and Cucho capped off the scoring seven minutes from time with a full-field sprint to turn that 2-0 deficit into what could maybe become a season-defining Columbus 3-2 win.

Porter deflected praise, saying “all credit goes to the players,” while his opposite number, Ezra Hendrickson, seemed at a loss to explain the collapse.

“Such a good first half and then to come out, they get a little bit of the play and you know, everything they put to us, we didn't fight back, right?” Hendrickson said in the postgame presser. “We didn't fight in the second half at all, you know, we just laid down and let them pass right through us, run by us, don’t run at them with our guys. And when you do that, teams punish you."

Chicago’s had a lot of bad losses this season, but this one – which, when combined with Sporting’s win, knocked the Fire down into dead last – was their very worst. And to add injury to insult, DP playmaker Xherdan Shaqiri asked to come off in the 80th minute due to what Hendrickson called a thigh injury.

I did not think it would get this bad for the Fire this year.

5. Roger damn Espinoza, man. Face of the Week:

Sporting didn’t generate much, but they got that masterpiece off one CF Montréal brain fart and then got a winner from Remi Walter midway through the second half off another (following a simple throw-in from the midfield stripe) to steal a 2-1 win and all three points out of Stade Saputo. It’s peeled them at least temporarily off the bottom of the table.

CF Montréal are just 2W-3L-0D since Djordje Mihailovic got hurt, and continue their longstanding tradition of finding a way to blow it at home against teams at/near the bottom of the table.

“When you see the goals we conceded tonight, it's frustrating,” head coach Wilfried Nancy said. “We weren't threatened and finally we gave away two goals while we were still building the match. In the first half, they created very few chances apart from the goal. In the second half we pushed and once again we made a mistake and were punished for it. That's the reality of this game.”

4. As mentioned above, Lowe had the misfortune of breaking new ground with his late own goal in Inter Miami’s lightning-delayed 1-0 loss at Orlando City late Saturday night. It was doubly (or triply, if you really want to think about it) unfortunate given that Lowe had played so well for the previous 91 minutes, right until he roofed it past the excellent Drake Callender (one of the best ‘keepers in the league since winning the job outright back in April).

It’s just the second win for Orlando since mid-May, and the more I look at the lack of their attacking dynamism and ability to generate high-level chances from possession – they managed just two shots from inside the 18 all night – the more I look back at the distribution patterns of their central midfielders:

urso and araujo

That’s the pass map for Cesar Araujo (No. 5) and Junior Urso (No. 11). Both are good players, but they don’t seem to have a ton of attacking chemistry with each other or with the guys ahead of them (who, to be fair, have issues of their own). You can see there’s a virtual “none shall pass” sign entering the final 30 yards of the field, and they hit a disproportionate percentage of their passes sideways or backwards compared to most starting central midfield duos in MLS as per TruMedia via StatsPerform.

I’m actually ok with that to a point – square balls and back-passes can rearrange an opposing defense in ways that create new avenues of attack (just look at the Williamson section above). But it’s not really happening like that for Orlando, and I don’t think this result should gloss over what’s become an ongoing issue.

3. RSL won the Rocky Mountain Cup for the 13th time in the past 16 years, but they did not feel much like celebrating after a late collapse saw the Rapids come back from 2-0 down for a 2-2 draw at Rio Tinto.

“The result sucks. Everyone feels it,” winger Justin Meram, who had RSL’s second goal, said in the postgame.

And while he’s right – blowing a 2-0 home lead to a rival sucks in any context – he’s also actually kind of wrong, as my god did Colorado have every chance to go up 1-0, 2-0, 3-0 in the game’s first half. They were absolutely all over RSL but somehow contrived to miss chance after chance after chance. So if anything, I think that 2-2 kind of flattered the hosts.

RSL still sit third in the West, but that’s in large part because of the knife fight going on in the standings below them as everybody keeps taking points from everybody else and nobody can get on an extended run. The Claret-and-Cobalt are in danger of sinking into that morass as well, as they’ve won just once in their past five and have coughed up four points from their past two home games.

2. Charlotte just worked Nashville, smashing them up by 4-1 in North Carolina in one of the most lopsided losses the ‘Yotes have suffered since moving to MLS.

The Sir Mintys are 3W-2L-1D with a +4 goal differential since Christian Lattanzio took over as interim manager in place of the dismissed Miguel Angel Ramirez. Lattanzio has kept a lot of the baseline stuff that Ramirez tried to instill, but is putting a new stamp on the team just the same. Both their total possession percentage and passes per sequence have increased under Lattanzio as per TruMedia, and they are much, much more eager to hit long diagonals (of the sort that produced the first two goals) across the game channel into either 1v1s for the winger, or overloads with an on-rushing fullback.

Underpinning all of this is the incredible season Brandt Bronico is having at d-mid. He’s been Charlotte’s MVP this year, and his ability to be both a reliable backline shield and a rangy ball-winner has allowed Charlotte to settle into a real 4-1-4-1 with attack-minded 8s and true wingers. That, in turn, allowed them to both stretch Nashville out to the flanks and open up gaps underneath in the half-spaces.

Nashville, meanwhile… just one win in five and it feels like they’re in some genuine trouble here. They are actually below the line on PPG and have the worst goals against of any of the teams in the West’s top eight.

We know, because of the way the roster’s constructed, they can’t/don’t go out there and just blow teams out. What happens if the defense stops being dominant – as, I would argue, it has? Does the whole thing just come crashing down?

1. And finally, FC Dallas’s trip to Houston produced one of the most thrilling editions of the Texas Derby ever played. It featured two Dynamo comebacks, two stoppage-time goals (including the latest in league history), and a stoppage-time red card (also the latest in league history) before finishing 2-2.

Dallas were better in the first half, and deserved their 1-0 lead. But the debut of Hector Herrera in the 55th minute proved to be a game-changer, as the El Tri legend produced a lot of this (sound up, as the commentary is spot on):

Dallas try to control the game by controlling the ball and tilting the field. HH was a one-man solution to that for Houston, as they were able to set up shop in the attacking half and have him dictate the game. He was constantly able to get the likes of Coco Carrasquilla and Darwin Quintero on the ball in Zone 14, and that led to chance after chance after chance.

Of course, field tilt does not always decide the game, and once this one entered second-half stoppage it also entered the #MLSAfterDark zone (and the #TacticsFree zone). And that’s how we got the most unhinged ending of the weekend – one that was probably the most unhinged MLS matchday in years.