Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

LA Galaxy are back, Sporting's MVP duo & more from MLS Week 19

Week 19 is in the books. We’re very close to “no excuses — you are what your record says you are” territory.

In we go:

Believing is art

Go out there every week. Play hard, and with optimism. Show some good things with the ball, and ultimately gut out a win via some brilliance from Chicharito.

Go out there every week. Play hard, and with optimism. Show many more good things with the ball and control entire games, but struggle to collect results because of a lack of goalscoring with Chicharito sidelined.

Go out and do what the LA Galaxy did on Saturday in Minnesota. Play hard and with optimism. No Chicharito, no home game, no soft part of the schedule. Go to a team that had lost just once in their past 13 and with your newly-acquired striker, and with your kids – foreign and domestic – in the lineup, get one of the most beautifully crafted goals of the year and put forth a gorgeous 75 minutes of soccer. Then hold on late for the 1-0 win.

The results of April, May and June showed that the Galaxy weren’t exactly the meme team they’d been for most of the TAM era. The results since then showed how much they missed Chicharito.

This win on Sunday was different. Minnesota United are pretty clearly the best side the Galaxy have beaten all year. They did it with a heavily rotated squad, and they did it in a way that screams “This is now Greg Vanney’s team.”

“Possibly,” Vanney said afterward when asked if this was the best Galaxy win in the season, before praising his team’s fight, determination and depth. “Ultimately on the road … these tough ones are about character and they’re about fight in the end. It’s about making plays and the guys withstood an onslaught in the end and held onto the win. I’m proud of them.”

That late onslaught — Minnesota took 12 of their 21 shots in the final 15 minutes as they were desperately chasing the game — shouldn’t overshadow just how much control the Galaxy exerted over proceedings in the first 75 minutes. A hallmark of Vanney’s Toronto’s teams was always their ability to draw opponents upfield and then eliminate them with the ball, and there haven’t been any prettier examples of that this season than the build-up to Kevin Cabral’s goal. Second Spectrum’s tactical cam gives us a good view of those principles of play at work:

I can't decide what the best part of this sequence is: Julian Araujo's defensive read and win of the ball, Efra Alvarez’s outlet that puts LA fully into transition mode, Dejan Joveljic's primary assist or Cabral’s first touch to take him across Bakaye Dibassy so that the recovering defender couldn’t get a foot in on the play.

Just a gorgeous goal. More than that, though: It was a statement of intent about how they want to play (LA's possessions start deeper than any other team in the league, as per Second Spectrum), and how well-equipped this team is to impose that upon one of the better teams in the league. Even when they’re missing their stars.

“The group that we keep putting together just keeps getting deeper and deeper, which is important in a long MLS season,” Vanney said. “We’re proving that we have a team that can compete for the long haul; not just for little bits and pieces of the season. This is one of those that our depth is capable of coming to some of the most difficult places in the league and finding ways to win games.”

So it finally feels like a new era for the Galaxy. And in some ways that means it feels like an old era since the league’s most decorated club is, once again, a threat to win some sort of trophy.

It might not happen this year — it probably won’t. But the coach is putting the ideas into place and the players are executing upon them. It’s been a long time since that was the case in Carson.

The way we get by

This is more of a narrative take than a tactical take, but Sporting Kansas City's 2-0 win in Frisco on Saturday night felt like a "Sporting is an elite team" game.

FC Dallas have been playing much better lately and were on a little bit of a streak. They were at home, where they hadn't lost since 2020, and they'd actually beaten Sporting in KC two weeks ago.

And with all that, Sporting waltzed in there and won by two goals. They didn't even play all that well, but it turns out they didn't have to.

"They're fighting for it," head coach Peter Vermes said afterward. "Obviously, there's a lot of good teams in this league and we're just trying to compete with them. I appreciate the effort of the guys. I appreciate the mentality. It was big-time."

It really was. Sporting have rediscovered a lot of the defensive things that made them so suffocating during the club's heyday, which includes effort and mentality, as Vermes noted. It also includes simple measurables like "defense" (just 20 goals allowed in 19 games), and the ability to turn that defense into offense. Per Second Spectrum's tracking data, Sporting are third in the league in xG generated from "high regains." In other words, their press fuels their attack.

The two guys benefitting most from that are a pair of Best XI candidates in center forward Alan Pulido and winger Daniel Salloi. They have both been outstanding individually, and a level beyond outstanding when they've gotten to play together.

Stay with me for a minute: One of the things I think about a lot is fit. And not just "fit" as in "put a shadow forward underneath a true center forward" or, in this case, "flank your center forward with two wingers." I think a lot about how players who really fit together have skillsets that, while they might overlap a bit, more often tend to amplify each other. They fit together because they don't just cover up each other's weaknesses; one's strengths makes the other's more valuable and vice versa.

Anyway, here's a couple of clips of Salloi, a winger who's not super comfortable inverting and becoming a playmaking hub, scoring a No. 9's goals. And in these clips you'll notice Pulido, a super-talented all-around No. 9 who's a devastating playmaker but has nonetheless earned deserved criticism throughout his career for not being dangerous enough in the area, dropping off and hanging around the top of the box:

These are players who fit together in a way that makes them both better. Pulido is a more dangerous playmaker because Salloi is so good at coming in to poach off the wing. Salloi gets more room to poach because Pulido is always on the minds of opposing defenders, even when he's just hanging out at the top of the box rather than mixing it up inside of it.

I don't know whether it's purely by inclination or if it's by design, but any time Sporting advance into the final third in these not-quite-transition-but-not-quite-pure-possession sequences, these guys both glide into these roles like they've been playing together for a decade. They have 19g/8a combined. Sporting are atop the West and second overall in both points (37) and goals (35).

There's other stuff happening here, obviously. The midfield, even after selling Gianluca Busio, is deep and is much better at stopping opposing transition moments than they have been for a while. The backline finally has more answers than questions. Johnny Russell is healthy again, and Tim Melia's still playing like he's in his prime.

They also got a bit of good luck — Dallas hit the woodwork twice, and flubbed a few other very good opportunities of the sort they'd been burying over the past month.

But Sporting had the pieces and the structure to take advantage of that luck in a way that recent Dallas opponents have not. They are an elite team, one that nobody's quite figured out how to slow down.

A few more things to ponder…

10. The two West teams with the conference’s longest unbeaten streaks met Friday night, and the streaks stayed intact as San Jose and Vancouver played to a fairly sloppy draw. That makes it five straight one-pointers for the ‘Caps, which is one off the league record.

Vancouver, for what it’s worth, did not record a single draw last year.

The Quakes, meanwhile, have the mien of a team that’s trying to find its footing early in the season (not great for mid-August!). Matias Almeyda went to a 4-2-3-1 in this game, which is a switch from the 3-4-3 they’d been using for the past month, and I’d argue they were able to get the ball into good spots in the build-up but lacked a cutting edge in the final third.

That is probably not surprising for a team that’s scored just 11 goals in their past 15 games.

9. The penalty debacle at the end of CF Montréal’s 2-1 win over the Red Bulls provided too many Face of the Week candidates to choose just one, so I am just going to dump a five-minute clip here. Watch the whole thing and marvel:

This was a fortunate win for CFM, but also a well-earned one — they dominated this game, and Carlos Coronel kept the Red Bulls in it.

This was also a necessary win for CFM, who’d taken just one point from the previous 15 on offer. The full three points here keeps them in the playoff race, currently in seventh place.

RBNY, meanwhile, seem set to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2009. They have one win in 10, a broken defense, minimal chance creation and zero forwards who put the ball in the net from open play. Head coach Gerhard Struber at least showed a little flexibility, switching out of his diamond to a 3-5-2 in order to mirror Montréal’s formation, but it didn’t really work.

8. Bobby Wood scored a header in the 32nd minute, his second goal of his nascent MLS career, and Real Salt Lake rode that 1-0 advantage all the way to the end in a home victory over punchless Austin FC.

Freddy Juarez slightly altered RSL’s shape in this one — Wood was the No. 9 with two true wingers, while Albert Rusnak and Damir Kreilach operated in the half-spaces — and I quite liked the idea behind that even if it wasn’t exactly overwhelming. He also used more of his subs, and did so earlier than is typical, which bodes well for the rest of the season.

There’s not much that bodes well for Austin at the moment. It’s worth noting that new DP Sebastian Driussi, who’s only been referred to as a midfielder in Austin’s press releases thus far, operated as a false 9 on the night.

It didn’t really matter, though, as even before the 49th-minute red card to Julio Cascante, Austin were struggling badly to create much.

7. No struggles to create from Colorado, who extended Houston’s winless streak to a club-record 12 games with a pretty comprehensive 3-1 win at Houston on Saturday night. Robin Fraser had his side operate out of a 4-3-3 that allowed both central midfielders (Mark-Anthony Kaye and Cole Bassett) to push forward, as well as left back(!!!) Auston Trusty.

It was a calculated risk, a bet that overwhelming the shaky Houston defense with that many numbers would force them to crumble, and that on the other end the Dynamo wouldn’t be able to make the Rapids suffer.

Obviously the risk paid off. Houston generated a ton of shots, and actually won the xG battle on the day, but they just don’t have the final third quality necessary to really compete against the better teams in MLS.

6. Speaking of the better teams in MLS, that’s exactly what NYCFC have been all year long, and exactly what they looked like in Saturday night’s 2-0 win over visiting Inter Miami in Harrison.

Here’s what I wrote in last week’s “Tiers Revisited” column: “How high you think NYCFC can climb depends upon what you think of starting center forward Taty Castellanos.”

Castellanos entered the game against Miami with six goals on 13.28 xG as per Opta, a massive underperformance. He exited it with eight goals on 14.85 xG. The goals he scored against Inter (a wide-open header from six yards and a penalty) are the exact types of chances he’s found all year, and are a good example of why he leads the league in xG:

xG Week 19

He doesn’t have to score a brace every game, and he certainly doesn’t have to overperform his underlying numbers. If he just hits, say, 90% of them, NYCFC’s about to rocket up the table.

So I will say it again: How high you think NYCFC can climb depends upon what you think of starting center forward Taty Castellanos.

5. The team NYCFC are chasing at the top of the East might’ve had something of a Pyrrhic victory up at BMO Field on Saturday night, going up to Toronto and beating the Reds 2-1. It looked grim when starting d-mid Matt Polster had to be helped off the field after his left ankle bent awkwardly on a clearance early in the second half, but thankfully Polster later posted on social media that it was "nothing serious."

The Revs, still without Carles Gil, are still winning. But it's a lot less craft a lot more smash-and-grab-style opportunism.

Which is to say that TFC gave New England hell and carried much of the game. But 1) they suffered a potentially devastating injury of their own when young Ralph Priso, who started at d-mid over Michael Bradley and was excellent, appeared to do his knee midway through the second half, and 2) with Ayo Akinola and now Jozy Altidore injured (again), they’re down to their third-choice center forward and it showed, and 3) the defense just isn’t good enough.

They’re bottom of the table for a reason. I don’t think they’ll finish dead last, but they're 11 points below the playoff line. This season is more likely to end with a Wooden Spoon than a postseason appearance.

4. Is Josef back? It feels like Josef’s back.

The King returned from a one-game suspension and scored the only goal in Atlanta’s 1-0 home win over LAFC on Sunday afternoon — his first home goal in 22 months. He now has five goals in about 760 regular-season minutes, and three in his past three appearances. He’s also moving better, clearly able to get into the open field at a sprint in a way he wasn’t quite doing during the springtime of his discontent:

This isn’t a golazo or anything, and I don't think Josef's quite 100% just yet. Plus LAFC’s Jesus David Murrillo maybe deserves a secondary assist for his failed clearance. But there was both a willingness (no more Gabriel Heinze!) and an ability (Josef’s healthy!) on Atlanta's part to get into the open field that’s been missing since literally last decade. Given the way the Sounders played and new head coach Gonzalo Pineda’s praise for Atlanta’s evolution under interim head coach Rob Valentino, one suspects there will be many more of these transition moments to come.

As for LAFC, their defense is good for one colossal error like that every game and their attackers aren't producing. They are now winless in six and are outside the playoffs looking in. They have earned that view.

3. Chicago continued their respectable play with a fairly stifling 1-0 win over the visiting Crew on Sunday evening. The Fire are 4-2-4 with a +2 goal differential over the past 10 games. That kind of form, if they keep it going, probably isn't going to be good enough to push into the playoffs, but it'll at least get them close.

Chicago aren't doing anything fancy. Raphael Wicky's had them in a 3-5-2 for most of this run, and whether it's because of the security provided by having an extra defender at the back or it is just the case of shaking off early-season jitters, they have been much less error-prone.

If you're not determined to give the game away, you stand a better chance of getting the results you want.

Of course, Columbus are in no shape to take anything from anyone at this point, as they showed when Chicago really did try to hand them a point at the end. They lost their fourth straight, and this time it wasn't a case of the defense breaking down. This time the attack failed to show up, as they didn't generate a single shot — on target or otherwise — from the 49th minute until deep into second-half stoppage. This right here is starting to become a real problem:

The Crew, like LAFC, should be much better than they are. But like LAFC, they've earned their spot below the line.

2. For the seventh time this season Nashville went down at home and had to play from behind. For the second time, they came all the way back and collected the full three points, beating D.C. United 5-2.

CJ Sapong got himself a brace and the veteran, who now has eight goals in about 1150 minutes this year, is officially keeping multiple DP forwards on the bench. It's not just his goalscoring, which is obviously superb. It's his hold-up play — his ability to get on the ball, keep a defender on his back, draw more attention, still stay on the ball, still attract even more attention and then cycle possession. He is just impossible to take off the ball, a skill set that opens up space (usually out wide) for the rest of the attack. And true to form, Nashville eviscerated D.C. United by constantly getting behind their wingbacks and pulling apart Hernan Losada's 3-4-2-1.

This was D.C.'s first loss in a month. Getting blown out is obviously concerning, though the real worry is that the injuries are, once again, starting to pile up. In this one is was veteran center back Steve Birnbaum who had to come off with a knock.

The thin slice of good news was that DP No. 10 Edison Flores made his return to the lineup for the first time in three months, getting a 20-minute cameo at the end. Flores used to have magic in his boots — that's why D.C. went out and made him their club-record signing — of the sort that doesn't really exist elsewhere in this squad.

He has not shown anything like that in his injury-marred MLS career thus far. It would help United's playoff push immensely if he were to start doing so.

1. And finally, our Pass of the Week goes to Seattle's Kelyn Rowe for this early, one-time cross to Raul Ruidiaz that should've been an assist in Seattle's wildly entertaining 6-2 win at Portland late Sunday night. This clip got a lot of love for Alex Roldan faking Claudio Bravo out of the frame, but that shouldn't entirely overshadow Rowe's work here. He picks his head up and spots Ruidiaz's run just as the ball is played to him:

Rowe hasn't touched the ball yet and he knows exactly where the pass is going, and exactly how to weigh it. When young players talk about adjusting to the speed of the game, this is what they mean. Decisions like this are made faster, and potentially season-changing sequences of play like this one unfold more quickly the higher you climb. And in MLS it's tough to climb much higher than these Sunday night Cascadia Cup games on national TV.

Anyway, as the scoreline suggests, the Timbers can't really defend at all. But with Sebastian Blanco back and healthy — he was spritely out there, and lasted an hour in his first start in 11-and-a-half-months — they're probably a good bet to win a bunch of these types of games 4-3 or 3-2 down the stretch. They'll hang in the playoff race, but unless they fix that defense somehow, it's hard to imagine them going anywhere.

As for the Sounders ... I don't even think they played particularly well. They were sluggish getting pressure to the ball, couldn't control the game with any sort of possession and Portland were constantly getting in behind for the first half, at least.

But Seattle have just as much attacking firepower as Portland, more depth and more flexibility. Brian Schmetzer brought on Nico Lodeiro — like Blanco he's working up to full health — to start the second half, switched to more of a 3-5-2 and settled the game some. They took the lead, and Schmetzer brought on more subs, changed the shape again and went to more of a pure counterattacking stance. And they scored more goals while Portland wilted.

With all due respect to the Revs and Sporting, Seattle's the best team in the league. They are finally just about healthy and whole, and they have a habit of owning the second half of the season.

Let's see where they go from here.