Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Lucho or Cucho? Can Houston stop LAFC? Conference Final mailbag


The Conference Finals of these Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs arrive Saturday night – Cincinnati vs. Columbus (6 pm ET | MLS Season Pass) in the East and LAFC vs. Houston (9:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass) in the West.

Since every writer we’ve got is already plugging away at covering this joint from every other conceivable angle, I will simply open up the mailbag and let you wonderful readers prompt me.

Away we go!

Doyle Conference Final mailbag 1

It’s a tough one to answer because all four of these teams are easy sells:

• LAFC are the defending champs looking to go back-to-back and feature a guy who’s one goal away from tying the single-season MLS mark for goals across all competitions, which just so happens to be held by his teammate (who might be retired two weeks from now). And, oh yeah, they’ve already been in two finals this year and come up short, so there’s a growing angst in the fanbase.

• Houston have the grizzled veteran MLS coach who’s been reborn, and has in turn brought soccer in H-Town back to life with some of the most gloriously fun and attractive soccer ever played in MLS. The centerpiece is the El Tri veteran – arguably the best midfielder in Concacaf history – who hated his first year in Houston but has been MVP-caliber this year. And, oh yeah, they’ve already won the US Open Cup, so now they’re in line for the Cup/Cup double.

• FC Cincinnati were the worst team in league history (or maybe soccer history overall) for three years, but in just two seasons under their new front office and sideline braintrust, they’ve already climbed to the top of the heap by winning the Supporters’ Shield. They’re going for a Shield/Cup double led by the league MVP, who could end up playing for more trophies wearing red, white & blue in the years to come.

• The Crew weren’t even supposed to be here! The fans saved their club five years ago, and since then have already gotten to celebrate one MLS Cup triumph. But after things got stale they went out and pried maybe the best head coach in the league from another MLS team, then made only minor adjustments as he took a team that missed last year’s playoffs and turned them into every neutral’s favorite group to watch because of the beautiful soccer they play.

I think the easiest one for a casual to wrap their head around is probably Cincy or LAFC, but man, Houston and Columbus really catch the eyes and the heartstrings.

Doyle Conference Final mailbag 2

We talked about this a lot on Wednesday’s Extratime, and we can unfortunately only give you an incomplete answer because Cincy center back Matt Miazga is suspended and we still don’t know the status of defensive midfielder Obinna Nwobodo.

Nwobodo is injured – he didn’t make the 18 in the Conference Semifinal vs. Philly – and sources say it does not look good for him to make a return in this game. I find it hard to imagine him being 60-minutes fit, let alone 90.

Miazga, meanwhile, got himself a three-game suspension for his behavior after Match 2 of the Round One win over the Red Bulls.

Those are two of Cincy’s three best players. Center back Nick Hagglund is already out for the playoffs with an injury, and while I think right wingback Santiago Arias will probably play some on Saturday, he just missed the Philly win with a muscle injury of his own, so I wouldn’t expect him to be 100%.

Soccer teams are not just collections of individuals; they are multi-limbed organisms who work in concert to defend and attack, press and counter, get out into transition or shell up behind the ball. Coordinated on and off-ball movements are the hallmarks of great soccer teams, and it’s hard to be coordinated if you’re missing a few central pieces of the team.

I think we already saw some of that from Cincy in the scrappy 1-0 win over the Union. The Garys were defensively organized (no shock there), but struggled to move the ball to good spots in rhythm. Partially that’s just what it means to play against Philly – they make your life hell. But partially, that’s what it means to go out there without a handful of your best players. The ball moves a little bit slower and windows close a little bit more quickly.

And so Lucho Acosta was kind of anonymous. He still managed to play a significant role in the game’s only goal (it was his quick free kick that started the sequence), but he otherwise was not able to put much of an imprint on the game. One of the things we saw a whole lot of, for example, was Lucho drifting out wide to the right to try to get on the ball.

He can do that, but it’s not his preferred place to operate. That’s on the left side, out by the touchline near the midfield stripe. Nwobodo in particular is very good at dropping deep, arranging the pieces and then hitting a line-breaking pass right there to Lucho’s feet.

There was none of that last week. I’m not sure there will be much more of it this week.

Cucho, meanwhile, has already scored four goals and added an assist in these playoffs, and is in the form of his career. Over the past couple of months Wilfried Nancy has used him more and more as a pure striker – dude took 11 shots in the 2-0 win at Orlando – and he’s risen to the occasion in terms of his goalscoring. But he remains the type of No. 9 who’s just as comfortable operating on the wing or underneath as a playmaker.

Columbus’ principles of play dictate that whoever’s on the ball be brave and attempt to draw the opposing defenders upfield, which then gives the front line either a numerical advantage or space to attack into. Cucho has been feasting because of that, and I don’t think that will change against a Cincy team that hasn’t exactly shut the Crew’s attack down this year.

Doyle Conference Final mailbag 3

As mentioned above, Ben Olsen’s got Houston playing some of the most attractive soccer of anybody in league history. It is all based around that midfield’s ability to get on the ball and dictate where on the field the game’s played and at what tempo, and there were plenty of brilliant sequences in the Western Conference Semifinal against Sporting KC that illustrated as much:

You can see it, though, right? The way the Dynamo generate chances most consistently involves possession through midfield, penetration up the left, pull-backs to the top of the box, then finding right back Griffin Dorsey on the overlap. When it works it’s both beautiful and effective.

And even then it’s a high-risk gambit because it leaves the opposing left winger either 1) open space to run into, or 2) a stranded center back to attack. And oh yeah, LAFC’s left winger happens to be the hottest goalscorer in league history and he just summarily defeated the Sounders last weekend when Seattle’s right back got caught up a little bit high on the overlap.

I’m not going to say that’s the whole thing in this game – Olsen will have his team happily shell up and absorb pressure for 90 (or 120) minutes if that’s what he thinks is the best course of action.

But it kind of feels like it’s the whole thing. Dénis Bouanga’s presence at left wing just makes it really hard for Houston to go full-on Dynaball, and if they can’t give you the full Dynaball, then maybe they just retreat into a low block and invite LAFC to make the game.

Doyle Conference Final mailbag 4

Columbus and Houston are obviously possession-heavy teams. While LAFC and Cincy can possess, I definitely think of them more as transition-oriented teams rather than ball-dominant, possession teams, so I do think the premise of the question is a little bit flawed.

Cincy are just below the likes of RBNY, Philly and St. Louis (as well as pure counter-attacking teams like Nashville and Minnesota) in terms of directness, as per the data from TruMedia via StatsPerform. That’s the Philly roots of general manager Chris Albright and head coach Pat Noonan showing.

LAFC, on the other hand, have become the league’s most effective pressing team. That’s not to say they press the most often – that’s still the Red Bulls. But LAFC create more turnovers in the attacking third than anyone, and they generated more shots, expected goals and actual goals off of that pressure than anyone. They, like Cincy, get the ball and go.

What really distinguishes these teams, then, is just talent. The four best players in the league this year were Lucho, Cucho, HH and Bouanga in some order, and the coaches and GMs at their respective teams were smart enough to build both squads and game models around them. That creates a positive feedback loop in which the team’s structure provides a platform for the strengths of the best player and the strengths of the best player resonate with the guys around him, making everyone five or 10 or 20 percent better.

Doyle Conference Final mailbag 5

Definitely. It’s a copycat league and if teams are winning with a specific blueprint, then other GMs and technical directors around the league will notice.

I, personally, would still spend my first two DP slots on an elite No. 10 and an elite No. 9, but I wouldn’t hesitate for a single second to spend significant resources in the center of the pitch. That’s where a ton of games are won or lost.

I think that’ll be the case this weekend as well, in both games. The goalscorers have been great and they get the highlights. But the midfields are the engines where the game is made.

See you all on Saturday.