Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

LAFC cement MLS-best status, Philadelphia produce a rare dud & more from Week 33

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Only one week – 16 games, with two on Wednesday and the rest on Decision Day next Sunday – remains in this 27th MLS regular season.

Thanks for reading along. Let’s jump in, and start with this year’s very deserving Supporters’ Shield winners:

Supporters’ Shield seg

For about five-and-a-half months, from the beginning of March to the middle of August, it was not a question of whether LAFC would win their second Shield in four years, but a question of by how much. Obviously they’d set the new points record, and obviously they’d continue to run away from the pack – even as Philly poured on the gas.

But as is well documented by now, it did not work out that way. LAFC followed up their 18-3-3 start to the season with a horrid run of form, going 1-5-1 over their next seven games to open the door for the Union.

Over the past two weeks, though, LAFC provided a reminder of why everyone truly believed that they’d cruise to 75 points at least. It’s not that they played particularly good ball in last week’s 3-1 home win over Houston or Sunday’s Shield-clinching 2-1 win at Portland. It’s that even when they’re not playing particularly good ball, they have the kind of talent that can brute force a win in a hostile environment against a quality opponent playing their hearts out.

There aren’t a lot of players in this league that could’ve curled home Carlos Vela’s 51st-minute opener, and there are even fewer that could’ve done this:

That’s Denis Bouanga’s first goal for LAFC. It’s also the type of goal you hope you’re paying for when you buy a new DP.

"This goal comes with amazing timing – amazing timing for me, but as well as to give a treat to my teammates, to the city of Los Angeles, to our supporters,” Bouanga said amidst the postgame jubilee. “All the work that we've been through together, yes, it's been [only] six games with the organization, but at the end of the day, there's a fluidity for me into the organization, and this is to give it back to the club and to the supporters."

“Very, very proud of the organization, the players – they dedicated a lot to this, their focus this week in training, even though it was an international break and guys came in late, their focus was amazing,” head coach Steve Cherundolo said. “Training sessions were very good. And so the logical performance or result happens – usually when we train well, we play well, and that's what happened this week.

“So credit to all the players and staff. Everybody did a fantastic job this week to make sure we came up with the right result. And absolutely everybody deserves a short breather, a short celebration, but we have more to achieve this season.”

Even with this two-game resurrection on the heels of that seven-game swoon; even with Gareth Bale being a good soldier about his role as a super-sub, and with Vela being ok with not going 90 every week, and with Bouanga regularly creating danger, I’m still not sure that LAFC are better set-up to win MLS Cup than they were two months ago. And we all know very well that, as Cherundolo intimated, they will consider 2022 a failure if they don’t take home that particular piece of hardware.

But I won’t. The Shield is the best trophy you can win in MLS, and the truest representation we have of who the best team in the league actually is. Give me 34 games spread across eight months over a five-game autumn hot streak any day.

LAFC are the champs. They celebrated like mad at Providence Park on Sunday, and they deserve that lap of honor they’ll take before closing out the season at home against Nashville next weekend.

The Union, of course, set themselves up for the fall with an uncharacteristically listless performance down in Charlotte, one in which the hosts out-worked, out-competed and overwhelmed the visitors en route to a 4-0 win, with all four of those goals coming from Daniel Rios.

"As a team, we didn't play well," Union head coach Jim Curtin said after the loss. "Good teams punish you."

Instead of going too far in on a Philly side I’ve spilled a million words on this year, I’m just going to give you the tl;dr on them from this game:

  • You need to bring a sufficient level of intensity in order to win games in this league, especially when – as Curtin pointed out – winning said game would end the opponent’s season. Philly didn’t.
  • They’re really missing Ale Bedoya. Yes, there’s the intangible stuff like leadership, but there’s also more tangible stuff like “running hard to close down passing lanes on one side of the ball, and to create passing lanes on the other.” Bedoya’s still the best central midfielder in the league at that.
  • The way 4-4-2 diamond teams create width is by launching the fullbacks forward, and the way to punish those teams is to attack the space in behind, dragging the shuttlers back and the center backs out.

It’s the second of those, the “dragging the center backs out” bit, that was so crucial in getting Rios his first goal, which set the tone for the rest of the game. This is textbook recognition of space from the Crown:

With Union RB Nathan Harriel pushed up to provide width, Charlotte winger Kamil Jozwiak makes a hard, vertical run as soon as the turnover happens. He’s joined by basically everyone else in the Charlotte attack, with the most important being DP No. 9 (who’s now playing as a DP No. 10) Karol Swiderski.

Because there are so many Charlotte attackers getting forward, they’re able to re-press and win Jack Elliott’s scuffed clearance. Swiderski puts Jozwiak into the primary assist zone, which draws one Union CB out, and then Swiderski himself ghosts to the corner of the six-yard box, which draws Elliott over.

And that leaves Rios unmarked in front of goal for the tap-in.

Formations, of course, aren’t tactics. But this is a pretty perfect example of how formations and tactics inform each other. In Charlotte’s case, a mid-block 4-2-3-1 with flying wingers was pointed directly at Philly’s potential weakness. It paid off.

You can hear it in interim coach – although he's expected to get the full-time job soonChristian Lattanzio’s postgame comments if you’re willing to read between the lines a little bit.

“I see him in training every day, so I know he is a goal scorer,” Lattanzio said of Rios’s four-goal performance. “I think because we want to replicate in training what we are going to do in games... If the team creates, Danny is going to be there to finish.”

I’m going to have more on Charlotte next week, either when they complete this miracle push into the playoffs (they need two wins and lots of help) or when their very promising debut season comes to an end. Part of what I’m going to write about is how Swiderski’s flexibility (yes, a guy who regularly partners Robert Lewandowski knows how to play off of a true No. 9) opened up new avenues for Lattanzio to explore, and the other is going to be about how getting guys like Rios, Brandt Bronico and Derrick Jones off the scrap-heap and turning them into capable, quality MLS starters is such a massive personnel win.

Because that really is the secret sauce in this league: You have to be able to turn potential into productivity. Whether the Crown make the playoffs or not, Lattanzio’s ability to do that in Year 1 means this season’s not only a success on its own terms, but one that sets the team up for greater success in 2023 and beyond.

Ok, since we finished the Shield segment with Charlotte we’ll stay in the East.

On the East Line

The most shocking result of the weekend was FC Cincinnati’s hands-wrapped-around-their-own-throats 3-2 home loss to an already-eliminated Chicago Fire side that was playing without all three of its DPs. It was Cincy’s first loss in two-and-a-half months, and it both came out of nowhere and was entirely understandable.

I want you to look at Cincy’s team shape on each of these clips (one nicely saved breakaway by Roman Celentano, followed by all three of Chicago’s goals):

There’s a concept in soccer called “rest defense” that Cincy have, uh, not quite mastered as of yet. Part of the reason they’re fun, and a huge part of the reason they’re successful this year, is because they throw numbers forward with such abandon. But that also means they’re often stretched out and disorganized when live-ball turnovers happen – their propensity to freelance when pushing forward means they’re often not structured to transition well from attacking to counter-pressing, or just straight-up defending. That’s what “rest defense” is, that ability to change phases, and Cincy’s was so poor to start the second half that the Fire were always two touches from ramming another breakaway down Celentano’s throat.

Pat Noonan, to his credit, knows this.

“In the second half, a 10 to 15-minute stretch there where our decision-making on a couple of plays that opened up the space in behind for them to expose us was the difference,” Noonan said in the postgame.

He’s talking about the decisions regarding where on the field to take the types of risks that can lead to goals – or to turnovers. Cincy repeatedly chose YOLO in those moments, and the Fire, behind 18-year-old Jhon Duran (a brace, and reports of eight-figure European interest from the likes of Liverpool and Chelsea) and 19-year-old homegrown Brian Gutierrez (1g/2a for the US U-20 international), punished them.

The saving grace for Cincy is that they still control their own destiny. A win next weekend at D.C. United, who clinched the Wooden Spoon with their 1-0 loss at Montréal on Saturday, and the Garys are in no matter what else happens in the East.

The reason Cincy still control their own destiny is that Orlando went to Harrison and took a 2-1 loss against NYCFC. There was a small window for all three of Orlando, Columbus and Miami to jump Cincy if the Lions had come out of New Jersey with a win, but it didn’t happen.

And honestly, it’s not because Orlando didn’t play well – they really did, for a very good chunk of the game. But NYCFC, with a healthy Keaton Parks and Alex Callens, is a much different beast than the team that had such a miserable summer.

Parks at the 6 makes the Pigeons completely unpressable. He’s so smooth on the ball, and is never hurried despite always taking extra touches to draw the defense in, then eliminate them with disguised progressive passes. This type of goal, with Talles Magno looking like an actual forward getting onto the end of a beautiful sequence of play, is NYCFC at their best. It’s been a long while since we’ve seen it.

Oscar Pareja was disappointed with the result, but praised his team’s awareness and commitment in the postgame presser, and I think he was right to, as there was nothing really wrong with how his side played – the hosts were just better once Parks got on the field.

Orlando now face a trip to Miami on Wednesday, and then host the Crew on Decision Day. A win in either gets them over the line and into the postseason for the third straight year.

That trip to Miami means a match-up against the hottest striker in the league in one Gonzalo Higuain, whose late goal in Toronto on Friday night gave the Herons a season-sustaining 1-0 win. Higuain’s now got 12g/2a in his past 15 games, during which Miami have gone 7-5-2 and climbed up into seventh place.

The game itself was kind of a dud. The postgame press conference was not.

“This is the best form I’ve been in since I arrived at the club,” Higuain said. “I’m at peace with myself, and when you're at peace it's hard for things to go wrong...I’m really enjoying playing fútbol, I’m enjoying being a part of this group that, regardless of if things are going well or going poorly, always gives everything.

“It’s been a difficult year for me but all the work has its reward…I feel like I’m in one of the happiest moments of my career.”

That is quite something from a guy who has had quite a few great moments in his career (and who, for the record, I hope will be back next year). Here’s Miami manager Phil Neville who, you’ll remember, actually benched Higuain for about two months earlier this season:

“The whole dressing room looks at [Higuain] as a leader. I think what we’ve done is provide him with a team and a platform, and he’s given the team back more. We’ve got a world-class player in Gonzalo, and he’s delivering everything and more for the team that worships him. It’s brilliant to see the happiness in which he’s playing his futbol, the happiness in the way he comes to work every single day, and he’s got the whole dressing room playing to his tune. That’s through respect and encouragement, on top of his performances. That’s what you get from winners.”

The vibes, they are impeccable.

One tactical note here: Neville once again had Miami come out in a mid-block 4-4-2 diamond, but switched to a front-foot 4-2-3-1 for the final 25 minutes as TFC’s fullbacks got worn out.

Miami, as mentioned, host Orlando midweek, and then host Montréal on Decision Day.

The other team in the East playoff fight produced the most stunning comeback of the weekend, as Derrick Etienne, Jr. got two late goals to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 home win for a Crew team that was watching it all slip away from them.

There’s no secret here: When the Crew play with pace and get guys moving off the ball, they generate a ton of chances for their wingers. If those wingers are productive, the Crew look like one of the better teams in the league:

I don’t know whether to give Mo Farsi our Pass of the Week for that chest pass on the first goal, or to give it to Lucas Zelarayan for that Drogba-esque back-to-goal flick on the second (I LOVE that run from young Jacen Russell-Rowe, who filled in for the suspended Cucho Hernandez). I guess they’ll have to share it.

It’s just the third win in two months for this team. They go to Charlotte on Wednesday and then Orlando on Decision Day, and just like Cincy, Orlando and Miami, they control their own destiny: win out, and they’re in. But bear in mind that Columbus are behind everyone on the first tiebreaker, which is wins. So depending upon how other results go, even a win in Orlando might not be enough to get the Crew up above the line.

The Crew haven’t had a winning streak all year, by the way. Now would be a hell of a time to put one together.

On the West Line

I don’t even know which angle to approach the West from. Portland’s dramatic loss on Sunday (I should mention it came when the game entered the #TacticsFreeZone, which the Timbers usually dominate) and Minnesota’s 2-0 loss at the Quakes on Saturday night, combined with RSL’s draw at the Galaxy and the inexplicably surging Whitecaps’ dominant win over AustinVancouver’s third in a row – means that there are a million different scenarios still on the board.

Since we’ve already covered the Timbers, let’s go to that 2-0 Loons loss in San Jose, which means Minnesota’s now taken just one of the past 18 points on offer. A lot of the issues they’re dealing with can be summed up by the Quakes’ second goal:

This is a well-rehearsed, and therefore precise and effective pattern of play from San Jose, one that they run whether they’re in transition (as they are here) or set up for possession in the attacking third: center forward Jeremy Ebobisse drops in to receive with his back to goal, which opens space for the weak-side winger to pinch in and make a direct run at goal, hoping to get onto the end of Ebobisse’s through-ball.

Here’s how it’s illuminating the issues with the Loons:

  • Minnesota have no patterns of play resembling this, which means if you can shut down Emanuel Reynoso, you can shut down the Loons.
  • With Bakaye Dibassy out for the year – this tailspin Minnesota’s in came directly after his injury – the central defense can’t cover in behind at all.

They have been getting ripped up in transition over the past month. They can’t afford to bring their line up at all, or Dayne St. Clair faces a run out like that basically every time.

Minnesota manager Adrian Heath chalked it up to will.

“I think they wanted to win the game more than we did, and that showed with their attitude. And when you consider what was at stake, that’s a pretty difficult pill to swallow, to be honest,” Heath said, before adding: “Maybe it’s the make-up of some of the people we’ve got. Maybe we have to look at that."

The reason this is squeaky bum time for Minnesota is because Vancouver just will not die, and on Saturday they scored a couple of goals that looked pretty similar to San Jose’s:

The pattern of play on both of those starts with the center forward dropping off the line and initiating a transition opportunity. It’s Vancouver’s bread and butter right now, and while the play of the center forwards is key, as is the play of playmaker/winger Ryan Gauld, it’s little Pedro Vite who’s added the third heat to a ‘Caps attack that was too often tepid all season long.

Vite, a U22 Initiative signing, had played sparingly over the first six-and-a-half months of the year. But head coach Vanni Sartini put him into the starting XI four games ago and now, playing on the 2 line of Sartini’s 3-4-2-1, the kid’s a through-ball machine. Every touch he takes he’s trying to put Gauld, Brian White et al. into space, and it’s working.

“It's just more time playing with each other,” Gauld said in the postgame. “And I think, not just the three of us, but also the guys who come in with a good understanding of where each other is going to be in the runs we like to make and we like to play in the box. So I think there's maybe only like that fourth, fifth, sixth game that the team has played that way, so definitely carry on into Minnesota and next year.”

Minnesota hosting Vancouver next weekend is one of two insanely providential West matchups, with RSL hosting Portland in the other. RSL – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – did not play particularly well in Carson, but they gutted out a 1-1 draw and damn near xDAWG’d the Galaxy to death.

I will add my usual in-depth RSL analysis:

“Obviously, it was a bit of a rollercoaster. The guys played their hearts out, played some great stuff. We’re right where we want to be,” head coach Pablo Mastroeni said after the game.

Here’s the rollercoaster: LA dominated almost every facet of the game from the jump, earned a penalty that was, of course, saved, then conceded a really well-worked goal to RSL – who then proceeded to throw numbers behind the ball to grit ‘n grind away the next 40 minutes.

At that point, however, LA earned another penalty (their 14th of the season, and yes, that leads the league), which Douglas Costa actually converted to make it 1-1. RSL re-commenced grit ‘n grinding, until second-half stoppage time when this happened:

Once again I ask: How am I supposed to analyze two teams that routinely do s&%# like this? That non-touch from Kevin Cabral, by the way, was the final play of the game. A DP winger, in on goal with a step, and he doesn’t even get a touch on the ball? Insanity.

Anyway, the point was enough for the Galaxy to claim a spot in the postseason. If things break right they could even have a home game, but the real fun is down at the line. Here’s how it stands:

  • Minnesota host Vancouver, and RSL host Portland.
  • All four teams control their own destiny – it’s win-and-you’re-in for each of them.
  • Minnesota and Portland just need draws to guarantee a spot in the postseason.

That’s all high-stress, but normal stuff. Here’s where it gets wild: None of the four teams can lose and still make the playoffs. If the Timbers lose, RSL are guaranteed to jump them – and so is the winner of Minnesota/Vancouver. If there is no winner, then Minnesota jump Portland because they’re even on points (46) and the Loons hold the first tiebreaker (wins).

I don’t think I’ve ever seen it come down to the wire like this.

A few more things to ponder…

The reason it’s coming down to the wire with just those four teams is because the Sounders couldn’t get it done in KC, losing 1-0 to a Sporting side that was only too happy to play spoiler.

This is our (hidden) Face of the Week:

Lodeiro Face of the Week

There is nothing more MLS than the Sounders becoming the first team to win the modern iteration of the CCL, and then missing the playoffs for the first time in team history all in the same season.

As I mentioned above, I think the Shield is the best trophy to win in MLS. But when we all think back on what 2022 was in this league, the Sounders are getting the first graph.

We got a real taste of just how badly FC Dallas need Paul Arriola, as they were almost never able to threaten in behind Colorado’s backline during the Rapids’ 1-0 win in Commerce City on Saturday afternoon. Arriola’s off-ball penetration is as big a part of what makes Dallas’s approach work as Jesus Ferreira’s clever movement into pockets, or the central midfield’s ability to control the pitch.

Without him, they are nowhere near as dynamic, and they still haven’t figured out how to outsource some of that dynamism to the central midfield. Part of that is risk aversion – Dallas are basically the opposite of Cincy when it comes to rest defense. But just like Cincy can’t figure out how to turn that part of their game on, los Toros can’t figure out how to turn it off.

Anyway, they’re still in line for a home game in the postseason. A win over Sporting next Sunday in Frisco would guarantee it.

The Revs, as has been their way all season, squandered a late lead on Saturday. But it took Gustavo Bou only four minutes to answer Josef Martinez’s bicycle kick golazo with a clinical far-post bender for the 2-1 lead – a lead that New England, for once, held on to.

The loss snuffed out the last embers of Atlanta’s flickering playoff chances.

CF Montréal took care of business against D.C. United on Saturday, winning 1-0 without either Djordje Mihailovic or Romell Quioto (the former suspended via yellow card accumulation, the latter nursing a knock he picked up on international duty). This team has piled up a number of short-handed wins like this all season, and that’s a big reason why I’m 99% sure I’m going to vote Wilfried Nancy for Sigi Schmid MLS Coach of the Year. None of the other top coaches of top teams have had to deal with as many absences among their top attackers.

Montréal, by the way, are very much one of the top teams this year. They’re now just two points below the Union and own the first tiebreaker, so if CFM win next weekend and Philly don’t, Montréal actually take the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

The 2022 Wooden Spoon is the fourth in D.C.’s history, which ties them with the Quakes for the most (and officially ends Cincy’s three-year lock on that particular piece of hardware).

Even the presumptive MVP is not immune to the capriciousness of the soccer gods:

Yeah, I’m voting for Hany Mukhtar, even after Nashville’s 2-1 home loss to Houston on Sunday night, one that served as a reminder of just how badly the ‘Yotes have struggled this year, and how much they’ve needed Hany to carry them. The fact that they’re already qualified for the playoffs and still have an outside shot at a home game is almost entirely due to their No. 10.

I’m really impressed with Houston interim head coach Kenny Bundy, by the way. He’s had the reins for four games, and the Dynamo have been the better team in three of them. I’m not sure if that and, say, a Decision Day win over the Galaxy would be enough for Houston’s powers that be to consider him for the full-time gig, but he’s making a very good case for himself.