Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Matt Turner slumping, RSL thrive with Herrera in the "Najar Role" & more from MLS Week 30

Teams are officially getting eliminated. That means season recaps are on their way! Everybody loves those GIFs.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at what happened in Week 30. We move:

Stick to the Team

I have called Matt Turner the best shot-stopper I've ever seen in MLS not because he makes the most spectacular saves — though he's got an elite combination of reflexes, size and athleticism which, combined with the Hamburger Helper mitts, means he does in fact make a ton of spectacular saves.

I called him the best I've seen because he makes a lot of those spectacular saves, and he basically never concedes "should've done better" goals.

Matt Turner, right here, should've done better:

That Ignacio Aliseda goal cost the Revs two points and gave the Fire an unexpected 2-2 draw in Foxborough.

But as unexpected as it was, it's not totally out of line with what Turner and the Revs have been recently. He also should've done better three weeks ago when Daryl Dike xWallop'd a goal directly through him that was eerily similar to Aliseda's (Turner, later in that game, saved Nani's PK to preserve three points for the Revs), and should've done better three days before that against this same Fire side on Carlos Teran's headed goal. The game prior to that he gave up what I'd consider a could've (not should've) done better goal to Gyasi Zardes.

He got a touch to all four of those. Over the past four seasons when Turner gets a touch, it's not a goal. This is the closest I've seen him come to a slump, and credit to the Fire for keeping the pressure on and taking advantage.

Revs manager Bruce Arena said afterward "we should have won that game," and while he was mostly talking about his team's inability to find a third goal — which is amusing given how dismissive he was of a recent question about New England's propensity for one-goal wins — he literally said “we should have been better closing out the game at the end.”

Usually they are because Turner is, well, the best shot-stopper I’ve ever seen in MLS. He hasn’t been over the past month, though, and that slippage has cost the Revs some points, because the Revs don’t play like a traditionally great MLS team. By that I mean they don’t completely control games like 2019 LAFC or bury opponents like 2017 Toronto or strangle everyone to death like the 2018 Red Bulls. Instead they let teams like the Fire or like the then-struggling Crew hang around, and have bet big on dominating the game's biggest moments rather than the game itself overall via either possession or field position.

Carles Gil with a threaded through-ball that nobody else could see. Gustavo Bou, top bins from 22 yards. Matt Turner with an outrageous save. You get the idea.

Because of this they rely more on their goalkeeper to keep the door shut than any Supporters’ Shield-winning side I can recall — even more than last year’s Union with the great Andre Blake — other than maybe the 2000 Kansas City Wizards with Tony Meola (who was the league MVP that year). If Turner slips even marginally, the Revs are a lot more vulnerable than their gaudy PPG suggests.

This is what the underlying numbers, via the folks at American Soccer Analysis, have been saying all year, by the way. The Revs are where they are because they're a pretty good team with a historically elite goalkeeper:

good bad and unlucky MLS october 16

And understand that through all of this, Turner has not been “bad” or even “average.” He just hasn’t been, over the past month, what he was, and the gap between what Turner was vs. an above-average MLS ‘keeper is basically the difference between a 70ish-point Shield winner entering the postseason as massive favorites and a 60ish-point side who are “if they get hot, they’re dangerous!”-type darkhorses. That is significant.

Anyway, if you’re a Revs fan, keep your fingers crossed this is just a blip. If that’s all it is, a month-long slump, Turner picked the right time for it. If this is the new normal, then New England aren't the favorites they right now appear to be.

Credit to the Fire for not just playing out the string. They went down twice and came back twice, and even if the second equalizer was kind of soft, it’s not like they didn’t deserve it; Chicago made the Revs backline scramble throughout.

Regardless, there will be a lot of changes coming to Chicago this offseason. Goalkeeper will not be one of them, as 17-year-old homegrown Gabriel Slonina seems to have locked up the job henceforth. He has been very, very good, even if he was caught out a bit on Bou’s go-ahead goal midway through the second half.

Red Light, Green Light

I will admit that I have been laboring under the now demonstrably incorrect assumption that RSL would, at some point, just pack up shop and call it a year, given all they’ve been through with off-field stuff over the past 18 months. That time span is up to and including head coach Freddy Juarez’s decision to walk away to take an assistant’s job elsewhere — basically an unheard-of situation in professional sports.

Juarez walked on August 27, with Pablo Mastroeni taking over on an interim basis with immediate effect. RSL had just seven wins in 20 outings under Juarez. Following a fairly dominant 3-1 win over Colorado on Saturday, they have now won five of nine under Mastroeni.

And it’s been wild. A 4-1 loss at the ‘Caps? Sure! An insane 4-3 win at San Jose? You bet! A 6-1 – 6-1! – drubbing at the Timbers? OK, let’s have some of that, too.

This would be a remarkable run of results under any coach, but under Mastroeni it’s making my head swim. His Rapids teams were known for their stubbornness and their defense and not much else. In 2017 they scored 31 goals all year long under him. RSL, in nine games, are now up to 18.

And the man gives some of the best postgame quotes in the league. This is wonderful:

“I think in the modern game anymore, everyone always wants to press high. Having played Colorado a few times already this year, they are willing to risk pressing high and isolating their center backs one-on-one versus our attackers,” Mastroeni explained in the presser. “It’s a lot like in boxing, you’ve got to soften them up with jabs.

“A jab in football in the way that I think about it is threatening their backline and making them run towards their goal. Once you do that, they will no longer be on the front foot, they are going to be leaning towards the back because they are hesitant. I showed them clips from when we played them last time, you do this a couple of times and now Rubio [Rubin] can find the ball underneath and combine.”

By the 15th minute, RSL were up 1-0. Just before the hour mark, they had landed so many jabs that Colorado were struggling to play out of their own end, and it was RSL’s chance to press high to create a goal off of combination play that finished with, yes, another Rubin jab:

This is good, fun soccer that RSL have been playing. Rubin and Damir Kreilach — who had the opening goal and assisted the other two, and is very much in the Best XI discussion if not quite in the MVP discourse — make a very natural pairing up top in Mastroeni’s preferred 3-5-2, while getting Albert Rusnak into the hole as a true No. 10 underneath the pair.

Rusnak’s numbers under Juarez: 5g/4a in 20 games. Under Mastroeni, he’s provided 2g/7a in 11 games. He finally, in other words, looks like a true playmaker.

There was added fun in this one, though, and fun of the type that indicates Pablo is more than willing to borrow what’s working elsewhere. One of the toughest tactical matchups anywhere in MLS in 2021 has been D.C.’s 3-4-2-1 with Andy Najar as an underlapping right center back who’s given license to drive forward off the dribble and create central overloads in order to free up Julian Gressel at right wingback.

Prior to June of this year I don’t think I’d ever seen an MLS center back given that type of attacking leeway, but now “The Najar Role” is popping up in a few places — Andrew Gutman in New Jersey, Jake Nerwinski in Vancouver, Jonathan Bornstein in Chicago. On Saturday it was Aaron Herrera’s turn.

I’m gonna make you watch 78 seconds. It’s worth it:

RSL color commentator Brian Dunseth basically explains what’s happening in real-time (gold star for Dunny) as Herrera first inverts, which creates space for right wingback Andrew Brody, and then flares out to the touchline when possession is recycled as Brody ducks into the box to become another potential target.

Think about that: the center back is overlapping while the wingback is pouring numbers into the box. Even D.C. don’t do that, while Seattle, when they push numbers, do it by sending both wingbacks up.

Not RSL. There were four guys in there in the 13th minute for Herrera, their overlapping center back, to aim at. Obviously it took some good luck for it to turn into a goal, but audentes fortuna iuvat. And RSL have been nothing if not bold in their brief run under Mastroeni thus far.

“Coming into the game we knew that [Brody] would be able to get on the end of balls,” Herrera said afterward, confirming that RSL had been hoping for something similar to this sequence of play from the jump. “I told him before the game that if he got in line I would always be ready to support him to set up a deeper cross.

“It went really well. I knew I had to be smart and pick my moments when to go forward, but it felt really good.”

It looked really good, too, though all of this open and adventurous soccer comes with the obvious downside that’s visible in some of those uglier scorelines since Mastroeni took charge. It’s sometimes clear in the defensive rotations that guys don’t quite know the system or formation well enough to cover. That is how Portland, Vancouver and the like have gashed RSL — everything is a transition goal where, say, Everton Luiz is playing up on the front line and nobody rotates to shield central midfield.

It’s worth it, though. For the first time in forever RSL have been a treat to watch, and moving Herrera to the Najar Role unlocks some potentially devastating attacking options for a team that’s already averaging two goals a game since the new manager took over.

They’ll need those goals, of course, as they are not clear of the pack as of yet. RSL finished the weekend in fifth place, just two points above the line with five games to play.

Colorado, meanwhile, remain clear of the pack and at third place in the West, though they’re staring at visits from Seattle and Portland, and then a trip to New England for their next three outings.

A few more things to ponder…

11. Nashville SC are starting to flirt with a pair of records following their scoreless draw at D.C. United on Saturday night. Record No. 1 is fewest losses in a season (4), a record held jointly by six different sides. Nashville have lost just three times all year.

The other record is most draws. Saturday night was their 15th, which is the fifth-most in MLS history. The single-season record of 18 was set in 2014 by the Fire.

As the scoreline suggests, it was not the most scintillating game. D.C., who were missing most of their key creative pieces, struggled to break down Nashville’s low block, and Nashville were never expansive enough in possession to let United’s press be the difference-maker.

10. Minnesota United went to Texas and did what they always do when they go to Texas this year: come away with points. In this case it was the full three points thanks to a 1-0 win at Austin FC that the Loons were fairly lucky to get given Austin’s inability to finish off some very promising sequences, especially late in the match.

This is wild, though, and doesn't bode too well for Minnesota over the rest of 2021:

The win snapped a mini, three-game winless skid for Minnesota, who stayed one point above the line. For Austin, the loss officially ended their playoff hopes.

9. CF Montréal’s playoff hopes are still alive after Sunusi Ibrahim headed home a late equalizer in Saturday afternoon’s otherwise disappointing 2-2 home draw against a young and rotated Philly side.

The disappointing part wasn’t down to how Montréal played; it’s that they played well — significantly better than the Union, who only generated any sort of threat on restarts — but just kept letting the visitors off the hook, and squandered what should’ve been a three-point weekend.

They are now in seventh place and face a three-game road trip that will surely determine whether they make the playoffs or not. Philly, meanwhile, stay in third.

8. And Orlando City stayed in fourth place thanks to a 1-0 win at FC Cincinnati courtesy of a pinpoint bender from Junior Urso.

The good news for Orlando, aside from obviously taking the three points, is that they’ve continued to reel in the teams ahead of them despite the predictable late-summer/early-autumn swoon from Nani. That’s a reversal from the past two years, as when Nani went cold, so did Orlando.

The numbers are even more stark this year, though (as befitting a reality in which time is linear):

  • Nani in his first 19 games of 2019: 8g/8a
  • Nani in his final 11 games of 2019: 4g/2a

OK, that's a substantial difference but not catastrophic. Let's see if it grows...

  • Nani in his first 16 games of 2020: 6g/6a
  • Nani in his final 10 games of 2020: 3g/0a

Ooof. Well, 2020 was weird, maybe 2021 will be better...

  • Nani in his first 15 games of 2021: 9g/6a
  • Nani in his next 9 games of 2021: 0g/1a


As I said, it's on some level encouraging that Orlando have turned it around in recent weeks despite Nani’s lack of production. But I don’t think there’s any doubt in central Florida that they’ve got to get their star man to the fountain of youth soon.

Cincy had a very good penalty shout at the end. I’ll leave it to the experts to hash that one out.

7. One spot behind Orlando in fifth are Atlanta who, for about 35 minutes, still had Heinze Brain up in Toronto on Saturday night. They’d force turnovers or put together good sequences of build-up play only to just completely slow everything down once they reached the final third and allow the TFC defense — which they’d done such a nice job of disorganizing — to get back into their shape and comfortably defend in a low block.

Then Luiz Araujo’s goal just before the half seemed to break the spell. Atlanta cut the Reds up in the second half, and to be honest, the 2-0 defeat flattered the hosts a bit:

“Tactically the team understand the concepts, when to play in between the lines, when to play in behind,” Atlanta manager Gonzalo Pineda said after the match. “I thought that at some point, with more confidence in the game, we were establishing that dominance in those positions. So, I’m very pleased with their movements.”

That movement has been there more often under Pineda and interim head coach Rob Valentino before him, but it’s still not as reliable or relentless as it should be given the talent on hand. Deprogramming after Heinze’s tenure, however brief it was, will likely take a full offseason (and a fully healthy Josef Martinez).

One more note on Atlanta: Brad Guzan has had maybe his best season since coming to MLS. His late save on Omar Gonzalez’s header was massive.

Not a lot to celebrate for Toronto FC, who were officially eliminated from the playoff race, despite the return of DPs Jozy Altidore and Alejandro Pozuelo.

6. Houston started the year 3-2-2. Then they went winless in 16, a single-season MLS record. Over the past month they have once again put together a 3-2-2 stretch, capping it off on Saturday evening with a fairly unexpected 2-1 win over the visiting Sounders.

This latest seven-game stretch has corresponded exactly with the insertion of playmaker Darwin Quintero into the XI and yes, Quintero has absolutely been Houston’s best player during basically all of it. There’s certainly no arguing it this weekend, as he assisted Maxi Urruti’s golzao before one-upping it himself with a bit of individual brilliance on the eventual match-winner.

Would Houston have hung around and been a threat to make the playoffs if Quintero had been a larger part of Tab Ramos’s plans — he played fewer than 200 minutes, total, before September — from the jump? I lean towards “probably not” but man does it seem like Ramos unnecessarily handicapped his side with Quintero’s months-long exile.

Seattle stay atop the West but any faint hopes they had of catching the Revs in the Shield race were snuffed out. The absences (there are lots) really did seem to take a toll in this game, especially in and around the box.

Note: These teams combined to hit the woodwork five times!

5. Face of the Week goes to Inter Miami goalkeeper Nick Marsman, who was on the wrong end of just about everything in his side’s 4-0 loss at Columbus:

Miami have lost six straight and been shut out in four of them. Over the duration of this six-game death spiral that’s all-but-officially ended their season, they’ve been outscored 16-1.

Columbus are obviously headed in the other direction and are now 3-1-1 in their past five. They are now only four points below the playoff line, but have three teams to jump in order to hop above the line and just five games to do it in. They will need a heroic closing kick and lots of help from elsewhere.

Gyasi Zardes seems up for the “heroic closing kick” part. His brace on Saturday gave him nine goals in just 1500 minutes this season. If he finds one more between now and the final whistle on Decision Day, he’ll have double digits in four straight years.

There aren’t a lot of guys who’ve managed that.

4. LAFC and San Jose are in almost the exact same positions in the West as Columbus and Miami are in the East following LAFC’s 3-1 win on Saturday afternoon. The Black & Gold are, like the Crew, four points below the line but making a bit of a push (they’re 4-3-1 since the start of September) and are slowly getting healthier.

San Jose are, like Miami, still mathematically but not plausibly alive. They’ve lost three straight and have only won twice in the past two months.

3. The Galaxy finally ended their nine-game winless skid with a 2-1 win over visiting Portland on Saturday night. Sacha Kljestan potted an unsaveable PK deep into stoppage time after Josecarlos Van Rankin had, uh, I’m gonna say “rashly” taken out Efra Alvarez in the box. A truly inexplicable challenge.

The result, which kept LA in sixth and kept them with two points of breathing room above the line, is very obviously the biggest thing. Running a close second is that the Galaxy actually looked like a Greg Vanney team for the first time in ages, using the ball to control the pace and tempo of the game as well as where it was played, and never letting Portland’s defense get set if a transition opportunity showed up.

This one, for example, could’ve been a goal. Should’ve, really:

LA can be particularly devastating when right back Julian Araujo gets forward at pace as he did in that clip, and if they’re generating looks like that for Chicharito, I like their chances of putting the two miserable months just past into the rearview for good.

For Portland this was their first loss in nearly two months, and easily their worst performance since the 6-2 loss to the Sounders.

It says quite a bit about the perpetually underrated Steve Clark that it took a couple of monumental defensive errors to beat him.

2. The Hudson River Derby was less eventful than last time, though like last time it ended with the red side of the river being much, much happier than the blue side. Cristian Casseres Jr.’s third-minute goal was the only one in RBNY’s 1-0 win, a result that kept them in ninth place, three points ahead of the Crew.

But it also leveled them with now eighth-place NYCFC on 40 points, one behind CF Montréal. RBNY truly are rolling, having gone 5-0-2 over the past month as Gerhard Struber has learned to love his bench (he has subbed earlier and more often during this stretch than in the season’s first five months) as well as moving away from his preferred two-forward set-ups. On Sunday it was a 3-4-2-1, though it’s just as often been a 4-2-3-1 over the past month, and either way RBNY have been just as difficult to play against and seemingly less vulnerable in transition than they had been through the summer.

And so NYCFC generated next to nothing — six shots, with just two on target. They are struggling badly and I thought Taylor Twellman was right, on the ESPN broadcast, to call out Ronny Deila’s decision to go with five at the back in a 3-4-2-1 of his own for this game, instead of playing a more front-foot 4-2-3-1 that could actually get on the ball and control things through midfield while stretching RBNY's backline horizontally.

Deila did eventually shift to a 4-2-3-1 for the final stage of this game, but it didn’t do enough to seriously pressure the Red Bulls. NYCFC never truly got close to finding an equalizer and are in a serious tailspin: just 1-5-3 since the start of September and have been shut out in four straight. They are below the line for the first time since Week 2.

The only good news is that three of their final five are at home which, this time of year, means Yankee Stadium. They still control their own destiny.

So do the Red Bulls, of course — if they win out, they're in. But as good as this run has been, there's an element of fool's gold in it as RBNY have scored more than one goal in a game just one time since July. That's 14 games, damn near half a season's worth.

1. And finally, our Pass of the Week comes from Vancouver's 2-1 win over Sporting late Sunday night:

There are few things I love more than a nice, cushioned header back across the box for a one-time finish. Just the sense to know where your teammates are and the defenders aren't ... just lovely.

The 'Caps stayed in eighth, just a point behind Minnesota and two back of LA and RSL.