Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Messi’s fun ruthlessness, Minnesota’s rugged flexibility & more from Matchday 12


The first matchday of May brought fireworks. If you’re reading this column, I’m sure you know it by now, but I’m gonna say it anyway: Lionel Messi set a handful of MLS records Saturday night. Just the greatest player in the history of the game doing greatest player in the history of the game things.

We’ll also talk about D.C. settling into their formation, the Quakes finding the gas pedal, RSL finding three more points, Vancouver remaining a piece short and everything else from around the league.

In we go:


Back in February, when we were making our preseason predictions, I went outside the box and picked Minnesota to finish fourth in the West. My rationale was pretty straight-forward: They’d have a full year of Teemu Pukki, who’d proved to be a top-tier No. 9 in MLS during his late-2023 cameo, and a full year of Emanuel Reynoso, who’d always been mercurial but had also always shown everything from flashes to entire months of some of the best No. 10 play in the league.

Add in winger Bongi Hlongwane – he quietly had 17 goals across all competitions last year – and a solid, veteran back six, and it all made sense. Get a new coach in to freshen up the message, roll out a basic 4-2-3-1 and let the guys cook.

If you’d told me, a third of the way into the season, that Reynoso had no-showed once again, and Pukki had been inconsistent to the point of maybe losing his starting job, and Bongi had been relegated to a bench role due to recurring knocks, then I’d have said: “enjoy 14th place.” Those three guys being healthy, available and productive was damn near my whole rationale for picking the Loons to impress.

And yet, here we are: none of the three guys I thought would be cornerstones of the team’s success have meaningfully contributed in two months, and yet Minnesota, following their 2-1 win at Atlanta on Saturday night, are on 20 points, tied atop the Supporters’ Shield standings with mighty Miami on two points per game.

The 4-2-3-1 is gone as well. In its place new manager Eric Ramsay has implemented a 5-4-1ish 3-4-2-1, a formation that’s proven both rugged and flexible.

The rugged part: When they’re pressed back into their own half, they really do defend with a five. That means they can absorb a lot of pressure, and survive a lot of hopeful balls into the box.

The flexible part: Both the left wingback and the right center back often pop into central midfield both with and without the ball. It’s a different kind of approach to winning (or at least not losing) the numbers game in central midfield, one that is unique in MLS at the moment.

The formation’s fluidity renders at least a little bit on the network passing graphic from the win:


No. 33 is Kervin Arriaga, the right center back. He’s basically an ad hoc central midfielder, while No. 2, Devin Padelford, is tighter than you’d see of a pure wingback.

All of this is fun and interesting. What Dayne St. Clair is doing is fun and hilarious:


Check out that far right column. Negative values are better. Even year Dayne St. Clair, baby. Might as well be Lev Yashin out there.

“We’re always going to need, particularly when it comes to places like this [Mercedes-Benz Stadium], our goalkeeper to make big saves,” Ramsay said. “And he made a couple of really big ones. He’s a relentless presence, big voice, big personality and you need to show big personality when you come to a place like this.”

I haven’t even touched on everything. Robin Lod – who had to be subbed out at halftime of this one – has been one of the best all-around midfielders in the league. Full stop. Tani Oluwaseyi has strong “next Brian White” vibes for his IQ around the box. Michael Boxall is ageless.

This team is good.

Atlanta, meanwhile, have actually played well the past couple of weeks, they’re just currently snakebit in front of goal. Does the dam burst or does frustration overwhelm them next week? The season’s not on a knife’s edge just yet, but a few more weeks of this and we’re suddenly there.

The Way Out

From day one of Nashville SC’s MLS existence, they’ve been who they are: sit deep, absorb and hit on the counter. The formation has changed at times, and most of the personnel has come and gone, but the game model hasn’t changed much year over year.

The results have, but even more worrying is the underlying numbers have as well. Bang on about that game model as much as you want, the simple fact is 1) the ‘Yotes have made the playoffs every single season, and 2) the underlying numbers have said that’s been a fair outcome every single time. This is not a team that has outkicked their coverage: they have always created high-value chances on the counter and limited the amount of high-value chances they concede because they’ve dominated their own box.

Coming into this past weekend, which produced a very happy, big-sigh-of-relief 4-1 win over visiting Montréal, those numbers had turned upside down. Nashville were weak defending in their own 18, and they were punchless on the counter, and it sure felt like panic time was rapidly approaching.

The indispensable Ben Wright drew a picture of what was going wrong a couple of weeks ago for Broadway Sports Media:


The main problem was they couldn’t get the ball into the box even when they had a runway to do so. The problem leading to that problem was they couldn’t progress the ball through midfield at all.

This is, simply put, a personnel issue. With Dax McCarty’s departure (one of the all-time great d-mid ball progressors MLS has ever had), more has been asked of the remaining central midfielders. And it’s been ugly. I’ll co-sign everything Ben wrote here:

Anibal Godoy attempts the most progressive passes in Nashville’s midfield, averaging 6.89 per match. That’s the 34th-best in MLS. Amar Sejdić is 71st with 5.0. Dru Yearwood is 91st with 4.09. Brian Anunga has the 109th-best rate at 1.43 per game. And Sean Davis comes in at 115, averaging just 1.75 progressive passes per 90 minutes played.

Things don’t get much better when you look at other metrics. Sejdić attempts the most passes into the box of any Nashville midfielder, attempting one pass per 90 minutes played. That’s the 39th-best rate among MLS midfielders. The rest of Nashville’s midfielders are ranked 73, 91, 115 and 117.

Same with passes into the final third. Godoy is Nashville’s best at 6.59 per game, 27th best in MLS. Besides him, Nashville don’t have a midfielder in the top 100. Key passes are slightly better, but with a twist: Sejdić has the seventh-best rate in MLS with three key passes per 90 minutes played. However, he’s played the full 90 minutes just once in MLS, and has played just 14% of available minutes in all competitions this year. Aside from Sejdić, Yearwood is the next closest Nashville midfielder at 85th in MLS.

The knock-on effect is Hany Mukhtar’s getting the ball less often, and is less dangerous when he does get on it.

  • He’s dropped from the 77th percentile in xG among attacking midfielders last year to the 38th percentile this year, which speaks to his drop-off as a goalscorer.
  • He’s dropped from the 92nd percentile in through-balls to the 62nd percentile this year, which speaks to his decline as a chance creator, as well as the team’s struggles to create danger off the counter.
  • His successful take-ons have dropped from 1.94 per game last year to 1.15 this year, which speaks to him getting on the ball in space less often.
  • And because he was always getting on the ball on the run via the counter in years past, he was able to carry the ball into the penalty box a lot – he was in the 88th percentile. This year that’s down to the 62nd percentile.

For one week, anyway, Nashville can bury all those worries because they buried the opponents. Sam Surrdige had a hat trick against an out-matched Montréal defense, and Hany had a pair of assists. When they weren’t cutting through the Montréal midfield they were playing over it with a pattern of play that’s proved to be repeatable (thanks again to Ben for catching this one):

They even got Walker Zimmerman back, and while they didn’t look like the best version of themselves defensively – Montréal definitely got some looks – they didn’t look as soft in the box as they have at points this year.

As with a number of other results this weekend, I’m not sure how much to read into this one. Montréal have had some good moments this year, but they’ve also had some total face-plants on the road, and they are battered and bruised to boot. Add in the fact Nashville controlled the game state throughout thanks to Surridge’s 11th-minute opener, and there’s a danger in thinking Nashville have found a way out of their doldrums when, in reality, this could’ve just been a one-off.

We shall see.

A few more things to ponder…

12. Charlotte endured a pretty flat first half, then adjusted Nikola Petkovic’s starting position in central midfield for the second (Petkovic pushed higher and planted himself in the right half-space) and were almost immediately rewarded with what proved to be the game-winner in a ho-hum 2-0 home win over short-handed Portland.

On the one hand, it was just a matter of taking care of business for the Crown. On the other, it was very encouraging to see them create that goal out of pure possession. Hasn’t been much of that from them this season.

Portland took seven points from their first three games, and have managed just three more from the subsequent eight. Three of their next four are at home. They’ve got to get right.

11. Lucho Acosta stuck the biscuit in the basket inside of 20 seconds, and that was all she wrote as Cincy went to Orlando and won 1-0 over the struggling Lions.

The hosts were reduced to 10 men when Rodrigo Schlegel saw red in the 23rd minute. Dagur Dan Thorhallsson was subbed off with an injury just before the half. Luis Muriel, who was signed to a three-year DP deal before the season, is now officially a late-game sub even when the team’s desperate for a goal.

After the highs of the past two years – a US Open Cup title in 2022 and 63 points in 2023 – it’s all gone spectacularly wrong.

“Another frustrating night because of the result,” is what head coach Oscar Pareja said afterward. “Obviously at this point, we are having urgency to get points. It’s a feeling we all had in the locker room. But I think the effort of the players demonstrated we’re still brave and trying to bounce back. Regarding the game, I thought we were the best team but that doesn't give us anything.”

Orlando fans are livid at Pareja and I get it – the head coach is always in the crosshairs. But… two DPs who play the same position, another DP who was a replacement for a kid who’s better than him, and big money for a goalkeeper who has been showing signs of regression over the past few years (that regression has been turbo-charged this year). Signing 35-year-old Nico Lodeiro as the sole replacement for Mauricio Pereyra was a major front-office error as well.

The David Brekalo injuries are just bad luck on top of a pile of roster-related miscalculations. Orlando still shouldn’t be this bad – Pareja has not covered himself in glory – but there’s a reason I picked them to be a mid-table East team this year, rather than competing for the top spot in the conference.

Lucho came off just past the hour mark for Cincy with a knock, though head coach Pat Noonan told reporters it doesn’t seem likely to keep the MVP out next weekend.

10. Toronto FC’s DP attacker Federico Bernardeschi has been notable for the grunt work he’s done all year than for any DP-level highlights he’s produced, but he scored just on each side of halftime in the Reds’ comfortable 3-1 win over visiting Dallas for his first two goals of the year. And on the second, he absolutely uncorked one:

I think everyone’s been waiting for him to have a moment like that this season. Part of playing him as a right wingback is giving him a runway to cut inside and have a go against a backpedaling backline and, well, there it is.

Despite conceding a late goal when they switched off on a set piece I also think this was quite easily Toronto’s best defensive performance since March, and they’re now on a three-game winning streak that’s got them up to third in the East.

“We had a sense that they would be very direct. We had a sense that they would try and bring those center midfielders on to the ball and find the channels in behind,” TFC head coach John Herdman said in the postgame presser. “So they had a strategy to draw your wide center back into the half-space and then try and find the player in behind.

"I think the guys committed to [stopping] that. We got caught early with the second phase pickups, but once we saw and solved that, I thought it was a strong performance defensively. So I just think, again, you come back to some of the key tactical challenges we knew they would pose and it played out how we thought once we got into the rhythm.”

Dallas now have just one win since February.

9. Houston and St. Louis combined for 41 shots with, in total, about 3.5 expected goals. Fourteen of those shots were on target.

None of them went into the net.

Houston are on a three-game winless skid, while St. Louis have won just twice all year. These teams both badly need an infusion of attacking quality in the summer window.

8. Our Face of the Week goes to everyone on the Fire bench in this picture:

Chicago, who have shifted from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 in recent weeks (it’s not working), lost 1-0 at home to the Revs on a 62nd-minute Tomás Chancalay banger.

Besides the win, there was other good news for the Revs: their No. 10, Carles Gil, had probably his most influential game of the season. He was able to get on the ball way more often in zone 14, had his highest pass completion percentage of the season, and his second-highest expected assists in a game.

I’m not sure New England have fixed all their spacing and shape issues – over-index a performance against the Fire at your own peril – but there will at least be some positive reinforcement in film sessions this week.

7. Not so for Sporting KC, who went to Utah and created just one even half-decent chance before somehow leaving Chicho Arango unmarked on a late set piece in what finished as a 1-0 final for the hosts.

Manager Peter Vermes maintained the defiant stance that has colored his postgame pressers in recent weeks.

“We actually played a good game. But again, the game is not just defending through the run of play, it's also set pieces,” Vermes said. “We shouldn't have given up the set piece where we did. There was no reason to. But then also defending it. I say this all the time. You have got to be able to defend, whether it's through the run of play or set pieces. We obviously didn’t do that on the set piece.”

RSL finished the weekend atop the West on points and second in points per game. They have the second-best goal difference in the league at +9, and in virtually any other season, Arango would be the run-away leader of the MVP race.

They have two DP slots open that they can use this summer. Andrés Gómez has made a leap on one wing, and Braian Ojeda has made a leap in central midfield. Emeka Eneli has been one of the biggest SuperDraft steals in recent memory. Brayan Vera provided the assist on Arango’s game-winner and also does stuff like this:

RSL are, uh, real. This isn’t all xDAWG and lucky bounces – they’re here to stay.

6. I do think Vancouver are here to stay as well, with “here” being “top six in the West, but probably closer to six than to one.” They know how they want to play under Vanni Sartini and mostly pull it off, as was the case in Saturday’s scoreless home draw vs. Austin.

But also, this was a match in which Sam Adekugbe was playing the attacking, inverted wingback role Bernardeschi plays in Toronto. There is a significant attacking gap between those two players.

Vancouver are a good team. They remain one high-quality attacking piece away from being a great team.

Austin have limited the errors that defined their 2023 season. There is nothing tactically special about what they’re doing – they just do a good job of getting numbers behind the ball and let Brad Stuver do the rest. He’s been one of the three best ‘keepers in the league this year.

5. Our Pass of the Week goes to an Argie No. 10, but not the one you’re thinking of!


San Jose got the best of LAFC in every phase of play during Saturday night’s 3-1 win. And while I’m not going to go out on a limb and say the Quakes are a playoff team, I do want to make the point they now have a slightly positive expected goals differential on the season. American Soccer Analysis’s all-in-one goals added metric is more bearish – they’ve got the Quakes 22nd – but even that is 1) trending upwards, and 2) not a disaster.

So why are San Jose where they are in the standings? It’s almost entirely due to goalkeeper underperformance. William Yarbrough and Daniel (who’s now out for the season) have collectively prevented six fewer goals than expected, and for a team that’s already lost five one-goal games this season, that explanation goes a long way.

The good news is the attack should get a little more juice as Hernán López, the club’s record signing, made his debut in this one. His touch map was promising, as he got on the ball in zone 14 a bunch and created three chances in his 45 minutes.

4. And now here’s our chief Armchair Analyst correspondent Calen Carr, who took in Colorado’s 2-0 win over NYCFC at Citi Field on Sunday afternoon:

Without Djordje Mihailovic, who was carrying a knock, Chris Armas added a second striker and went to a familiar 4-2-2-2 on his return to New York. While many teams have been tempted to come to the tight confines of both Yankee Stadium and Citi Field during this past five-match home span for New York City, Armas’ experience saw his team take fewer risks playing out vs NYCFC’s counter-press & instead found the wide areas during moments in transition.

Moise Bombito was excellent defensively and had the pass to spring Kevin Cabral that led to Rafa Navarro’s confident breakthrough goal. Cole Bassett was the clear MOTM with an assist and goal to clinch. All four of Bassett’s goals this season have been on the road and all have been in the second half. Colorado have equaled their win total (5) from all of last season and it’s only May.

After an excellent run at home, NYCFC will likely go back out on the road without the confidence the points they’ve earned at home deserve. They still haven’t answered the question of where the goals will come from after another disappointing outing from Mounsef Bakrar, who is visibly wearing it. The problem for Nick Cushing is there’s no clear option to step in.

3. I thought Taylor Twellman made a very good point in the 67th minute of Seattle’s scoreless draw vs. LA on Sunday night: the Sounders have been flagged offside less than any other team in MLS. They are not taking risks off the ball, and with Pedro de la Vega injured, they do not have anyone* who can break an opponent down with the ball. So it is a slog.

*Georgi Minoungou could, perhaps, change that? Dumb foul at the end, but he looked good in his debut cameo.

This was a very good road point for the Galaxy without both Riqui Puig and Dejan Joveljic. And the return to the XI of Jalen Neal – who made two huge, game-saving defensive interventions – made it an extra happy, if kind of boring evening for the folks from Carson.

2. Troy Lesesne had his D.C. side in a 3-5-2 on Saturday night, with a clear mandate to create wide overloads, get both wingbacks involved and stretch out Philly’s midfield four. By and large it worked – and especially so on the first goal:

Notice it’s right wingback Aaron Herrera staying wide, with chalk on his boots, to play in Jared Stroud? Notice the fluidity and interplay between the three central midfielders (Stroud, Mateusz Klich and Jackson Hopkins)? Notice it’s the left wingback, Cristian Dajome, who finished the play off?

This was all such good stuff, and D.C., with goals from Dajome and rookie striker Jacob Murrell, finally got some help for Christian Benteke.

And yet it finished 2-2. Ale Bedoya pulled one back just before the half via a well-worked set piece and Jack McGlynn provided the equalizer with a late thunderbastard. Philly, as is their wont, didn’t play well, but scratched and clawed their way to a result. United, as is their wont, largely controlled proceedings, but left the door open to disappointment.

It’s who these teams are right now.

1. And finally, let’s talk about Leo Messi. His Herons were down 1-0 at the half to a Red Bulls side that had already buried them once this year. By the time the final whistle blew, it was 6-2 to the guys in pink and Messi had slotted home one goal while assisting on the other five. Here are the records he set:

  • Most goal contributions (6) in a regular-season game
  • Most assists (5) in a half
  • Most assists (5) in a game

He also tied Ante Razov’s 24-year-old record for most goal contributions in any MLS game (Ante had 2g/4a in a playoff game vs. the Revs back in September 2000).

Messi is now tied with teammate Luis Suárez for the Golden Boot lead with 10 goals. He also has 12 assists, which leads the league by a mile (nobody else has more than seven). He is playing with joy and ruthlessness, and it is beautiful:

That’s new guy Matias Rojas with a pair of goals in there, by the way. The rich have gotten richer, and that’s before you even consider the fact Miami were missing three starters (Jordi Alba, Diego Gómez and Federico Redondo, all of whom are expected back by the end of the month) in this one.

They have won four straight and are unbeaten in six. They are atop the Supporters’ Shield race on points and tied for the top spot on points per game. The toughest part of their schedule is behind them, and because of the young players they’ve developed over the past few months, they have the ability to add new pieces in defense come summer via trade or transfer.

They are not fully formed yet, but they are utterly terrifying.