Taylor Twellman and Jon Champion made a good point during halftime of Sunday’s ESPN broadcast of Atlanta’s trip to Miami (which we’ll get to down at the bottom of the piece): eight weeks into the 2021 season, nine of the 14 teams that eventually made the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs were above the line. We’re not at a definitive “you are who your record says you are” point of the season yet, but I think for the majority of the league, we’ve got a pretty decent feel for what’s what.
And so it’s not surprising that the first two coaching changes of the year happened this past week. The Quakes, under Matias Almeyda, and D.C. United, under Hernan Losada, were going nowhere. Early returns on their interim replacements… pretty good!
In we go:
The Quakes, even without Almeyda, apparently still have that chaosball DNA. Gone in the first game after parting ways with the Argentine was the man-marking that had defined his tenure, but you couldn’t tell on sequences like this one!
Francisco Calvo comes 60 yards upfield, makes a play on the ball, doesn't win it, Seattle break in the other direction, and Jordan Morris’s goal comes from the exact spot the left center back should be. Right back Paul Marie, meanwhile, can’t get out and get any pressure to the cross because the whole team shape has been compromised by Calvo’s jaunt.
In any defensive scheme this type of risk from a center back would be insanity. But when you’re trying to break* man-marking habits… well, there you go. Morris’s goal made it 3-1, and game over, right? Seattle had literally never lost a game in their MLS existence in which they’d taken a multi-goal lead.
(*) Based upon his half-decade in the league, I sincerely doubt Calvo is trying to break those habits.
Somehow this game finished 4-3 to the Quakes. Stefan Frei had one of the worst howlers of his life to make it 3-2, and 45 seconds later the Quakes pressed their way into an equalizer. A soft, but probably correct penalty call in second-half stoppage, which Cristian Espinoza slammed home to finish his hat-trick, made for the final scoreline.
It was maybe the most appropriate way imaginable to commemorate the Goonies-themed merch the Quakes released this weekend, and it marked San Jose’s first win of the year. Interim head coach Alex Covelo was right to celebrate like mad when it was done – in any circumstances that would’ve been a momentous victory, but when it’s your first league game after replacing the long-time head coach, and against the freaking Sounders?
“It was unbelievable. I can’t describe it,” Covelo said afterwards. “I have been here since 2017 and it’s amazing how much energy the fans provide to the club. Always. That’s why I learned one sentence when I first came here, a friend of mine told me: Goonies Never Say Die. So, here we are.”
I will say straight-up that Calvo is going to remain a liability (he had a hand in all three Seattle goals) no matter the scheme, and I didn’t love Covelo’s ultra-conservative personnel choices in central midfield. To put it another way, I don’t think it was an accident that the floodgates opened when he dropped one of his No. 8s, shifted Jamiro Monteiro inside and brought Cade Cowell on to run the left wing.
But the rest of what Covelo did made sense. It was a 4-1-4-1 structure similar to what Almeyda had used, and one that created real pitch balance against a good team. The gaps that occurred – the ones that the Sounders drove a truck and three goals through – came from individual errors, not structural self-sabotage. That, alone, is enough to be at least somewhat optimistic moving forward.
As for the Sounders, a week-and-a-half from now we will look at this game in one of two ways: it was the wake-up call they needed ahead of the CCL finals, or it was a warning bell that presaged continental doom.
That is it. There is no in-between.
And just like that, everyone understands why Taxi Fountas was D.C. United’s biggest signing of the offseason – and why they paid a little extra to get him out of his contract before the summer window. The little attacker was the biggest player on the field on Saturday, registering two goals and an assist in his side’s 3-2 win over visiting New England.
There will be more to come on Fountas in the weeks and months ahead, more analysis as to the nuances of how and where he makes United a better team right from the jump. But what was successful in this one was the most basic thing in the game: pass and move. Do not stay still. Do not let yourself get lost in a defender’s cover shadow for want of off-ball activity.
That is it. There is no secret sauce, just a commitment to doing the foundational things well, and decisively. Just that, and suddenly a D.C. attack that’s lacked quality was creating useful combinations all over the field, but especially in the final third:
This is part of how D.C. played under Losada. They were sixth in the league in pass-and-move sequences in the final third per game, as per Second Spectrum’s tracking data (I’m telling you guys, there’s everything in there and we’re just scratching the surface of understanding how to apply it all). What they haven’t been good at is turning those combos into goals, or even chances.
Enter Fountas. This is his job, and he was both relentless and effective at it in his first start.
That, of course, wasn’t the only big storyline in this one. As mentioned above, Losada was dismissed midweek and that made this the first game in charge for interim head coach Chad Ashton. He’s held this title before, back when Ben Olsen was dismissed in the 2020 season, and he looked comfortable filling the role now in Losada’s place.
What worked was that Ashton stuck with a lot of the foundation that Losada had built. And I want to be clear here that the job in D.C. is different from the one in San Jose. Covelo’s got to overwrite the entire defensive scheme the Quakes have been running for years, but in D.C., even though the results this year and down the stretch last year were bad, a lot of Losada’s soccer ideas are good. The underlying numbers really liked what he put into place in 2021 (I’m in several group chats/Slack groups with quants, and they all lost their collective s&^# when Losada was fired), and Ashton was smart enough to keep the baseline principles like the formation (3-4-2-1), the line of confrontation (high!) and the aggressiveness of the fullbacks.
Sprinkle in a little bit of extra attacking third quality, shake well… and there you go. That’s the recipe for the first D.C. win in six weeks.
“I was worried when we conceded the early goal because I thought we looked a little shellshocked,” Ashton said postgame, referencing the fact that his team actually had to come back from a goal down after New England had opened the scoring early through Brandon Bye. “I was worried right then, what that emotion and what that week took out of us. The response by the guys – unbelievable. It boosts our confidence. It gives us one to start moving in the right direction.”
The bigger-picture takeaway is this: I don’t think what Losada was trying to do was broken; I think the way he was trying to get his players to do it was. Ashton seems to see things the same way, and whether or not he’s the right voice to guide this project long-term, he certainly was for this weekend.
Speaking of voices, Carles Gil was willing to use his late in the first half after seeing his side’s 1-0 lead evaporate into a 3-1 deficit over the course of 17 miserable minutes:
I’ve been digging through the numbers, trying to find a smoking gun that explains why this team, which was very good last season, has been so bad this season, and I think I’ve found it: as per Second Spectrum, they get pressure to just 33.6% of forward passes, which is 27th in the league. Last year that number was 41.8%, which was mid-table.
In other words it is simply easier to move the ball upfield against the Revs this year, and for a team that often plays 1-v-3 in midfield, that lack of pressure is creating too many fires for one guy – even as good a d-mid as Matt Polster – to fight. No one can scramble that much, and no one player can fix a defensive shape that is too often terminally unbalanced.
It’s been really poor, and Bruce Arena hasn’t done anything to address it. Gil seems to have noticed.
Daniel Gazdag has one assist on the year, and is outside the top 100 in MLS in expected assists as per TruMedia via StatsPerform. He gets into great spots to take advantage of moments like that one above, but then they fizzle. And I wonder how long it will be until Paxten Aaronson starts cutting into Gazdag’s minutes. My guess is that it’ll come after the Concacaf U-20 Championship in June.
As for the guests, who got their equalizer from Kei Kamara, they are now unbeaten in five (three wins, two draws), with four of those five coming on the road. They have finished up a brutal early schedule in which six of eight were on the road, and are now staring at eight of their next 12 at home through mid-July.
In other words, you’d be smart to bet on Montréal continuing to climb the standings.
11. If you’re a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 side, and you’re facing an opponent who uses wingbacks, you’ve got two choices of how to face them. You can either 1) be conservative, drop your wingers back and try to limit the influence of the wingbacks by always having numbers around them, or you can 2) be aggressive, push your wingers higher and force the opposing coach to either drop his wingbacks (which basically makes a back 3 into a back 5) to deal with your numbers, or to throw caution to the wind and have the center backs try to handle things.
I think Josh Wolff knew that Vanni Sartini would take door No. 1, and so Austin’s 3-0 win over Vancouver on Saturday night was another sad tale that began with the subpar play of the ‘Caps overwhelmed wingbacks. This time it was more about the right side than the left, but either way it’s been happening a lot, and Vancouver haven’t really adjusted. The book’s out on them, and their opponents have read it and are now beating them over the head with it.
Austin’s done really well to start the season, midweek US Open Cup hiccup or not. Eight of their next 11 are on the road, though – a stretch that runs into mid-July – and things are about to get very real. It’ll be interesting to see how much of this good early form stands up into summer.
10. It is probably not surprising that a match between a Crew side missing their DP No. 10 and a Sporting side who have been without both their DP No. 10 and DP No. 9 all year produced such a tepid scoreless draw.
Columbus are now five winless, and the early promise of the winger corps has dried up as Yaw Yeboah has no goals and just one assist all season, and Derrick Etienne, Jr. has neither scored nor assisted since Week 3, and Alexandru Matan barely registers in the brief minutes he actually gets (he’s got no goals or assists in 27 minutes this year, and had none in about 800 minutes last year).
The Crew traded Gyasi Zardes this week with an eye toward adding a new DP, and early reports are that they want to bring in a striker. I get it, but somebody’s got to do the work of actually creating chances in the first place, and even when Lucas Zelarayan has been healthy this team has not been great at that over the past few years.
This one was rough for the Dynamo, who watched Dallas sleepwalk through the first 70 minutes then pour it on late after switching out of their standard 4-3-3 into what played as more of a 4-2-4 down the stretch. Nico Estevez absolutely threw in the kitchen sink over the final 20 minutes.
He was free to do so because while Nagamura has coaxed some improvements out of that Houston roster, they are still toothless when Darwin Quintero's not on the field. And Darwin was not on the field for the entire second half after picking up what looked like a muscle injury just before the break.
Sometimes it’s as simple as that as both teams enter the #TacticsFreeZone. “We know they can’t hurt us, so let’s just throw everything we’ve got at them” is the only real principle of play at that point.
It got Dallas a win, which is huge. Nonetheless, I doubt Estevez is too thrilled about how his team has played the past couple of weeks.
8. Pablo Mastroeni will be thrilled with the point his RSL side took out of Providence Park, sufferball’ing their way to a very well-earned scoreless draw as Gio Savarese tried and failed to find a code that could crack the RSL bunker.
“Obviously we are all really happy,” Glad said afterward. “I think we could have walked out of here with three points, but it was important to get a result, especially after what happened against New York. The mentality to come back after a result like that, Portland is a tough place to play, and to bounce back like that is huge.”
It was. Still, though, RSL are winless in five and stepped on a rake midweek in the US Open Cup. The Timbers, meanwhile, have won just once in five home games this season. Both teams are missing something right now.
7. With other teams, you can usually get lost in the sauce trying to pinpoint why they’re struggling. But Minnesota have one of the most heliocentric attacks in MLS – it all revolves around Emanuel Reynoso. And if his sun dims, his team’s entire world goes black.
That was the story of March and into April, but he’s been shining bright the past couple of weeks. Reynoso had a goal and an assist in his side’s 3-0 win over the visiting Fire, which came after his two-assist performance last week against the Rapids. It is fair to say he’s playing pretty well!
And thus, so are the Loons. They potted six goals in eight days, and Reynoso’s got boxscore contributions on five of them. In the previous month-and-a-half they’d scored just five times, with Reynoso getting into the boxscore just once.
“He’s an MVP talent,” head coach Adrian Heath said after the game. “ ... I feel as though he’s just starting to click into the gear that we know he can. If we want to do what or I think we are capable of, there’s no doubt we will need a fit and healthy and very, very in form Reynoso."
There are other things that will determine how high Minnesota climb – Kervin Arriaga’s work rate in central midfield, which is now even more important after Hassani Dotson was lost for the season with a torn ACL this week; the right attacking balance in the front three, which was adjusted in this one as Robin Lod started at center forward; how high the fullbacks can get, and more – but “how Reynoso goes, Minnesota goes” is done by design.
And that’s fine! Most of the teams that have won an MLS Cup over the past decade have done so behind the playmaking of a genius No. 10. It is a high-floor approach, one that comes with a potentially high ceiling if you get a few other things right as well.
The Fire need some of that, because even with Xherdan Shaqiri back in the lineup they produced damn near nothing going forward. They’ve now been shut out in four straight.
This was the last of Nashville’s eight-game, season-opening road trip, and they played like it in getting outshot 16-4 and out-possessed by more than a 2-to-1 margin. They are spent, and the fact that they shipped late goals that turned a win into a draw last week, and a draw into a win this week, says as much.
But also, with 11 points from that trip, they are fine – better than “fine,” probably. Three wins, three losses and two draws with 17 of your final 26 games at home? I think every coach in MLS would sign up for that.
The Galaxy, on the other hand, are playing good, often energetic ball, but are still not fine, and it might be getting to the point where they have to tap out of the Kevin Cabral experience. He still works hard and gets into good spots, but he is now at 5g/2a in 2500 MLS minutes. That’s not good enough.
They signed him to a five-year DP deal.
5. Charlotte did well to go on the road to Colorado and come away with a point, pitching a shutout in Commerce City. Truth is they arguably deserved all three, as they spend more time on the front foot and created significantly more chances than the hosts.
“I didn't think that we played as well as we have the last couple weeks. For whatever reason, first touches were off, passes were off,” Rapids head coach Robin Fraser said. “Credit to Charlotte. They made it difficult. We did make a number of changes.
“I would think that we would be able to handle all of that and play the way we're normally able to. Things didn't go the way we wanted to."
The Rapids really are in some sort of a malaise. I do wonder, with the acquisition of Gyasi Zardes, if the answer might be shifting to a 3-5-2 with both he and Diego Rubio up top. Those two guys should fit together.
4. I do not know how to explain RBNY’s season thus far, one in which they’re winless at home (0W-2L-2D) and a perfect 4W-0L-0D on the road following Sunday afternoon’s commanding 3-0 win at Orlando City. This was a paddlin’, one in which they finally paired some goals with the pitch control dominance they’ve shown as a matter of course throughout the season.
One thing to note is that while the Red Bulls are still the pressing-est team in the league, they are pressing neither as high nor as hard as they did last season. And you saw it on the first two goals in this one, which came more from deeper-lying transition moments.
There’s always been a steady diet of those types of goals in Energy Drink Soccer, but they’re making up a larger share this year.
3. Pass of the Week goes to Toronto’s young Kosi Thompson, who picked up his first career assist on the opener, and then did this to get his second career helper:
Things went really, really badly from there for the Reds (the final score of 5-4 belied how one-sided this game actually was). NYCFC, playing their fifth home opener of the year put the pedal down and just started ripping the visitors apart and raining goals – some from the break, others from the press, and all at least partially because TFC can not cover ground or win the ball in central midfield. Everybody gets a free run.
It was a looming issue everyone, I think, knew about heading into the season. Through eight games the Reds are 3W-3L-2D, so it hasn’t exactly been fatal, but all the underlying numbers are screaming out a warning that things are not going as well as that record indicates. Alex Bono is going to suffer more five-goal traumas if things in front of him don’t change.
The Pigeons scored 11 goals over two games, which is just the sixth time that’s ever happened in MLS. Ronny Deila will certainly have words with his team this week about defensive effort and professionally seeing out results, but this group is who we thought they were: one of the elite teams in MLS.
2. LAFC went to Cincy and just barely took care of business, getting a pair of second-half goals to overturn a 1-0 deficit and walk out with a 2-1 win. This is yet another entry in this year’s “LAFC are more solid than overwhelming” journal, which is presumably just fine by fans of the Black & Gold given that they’re currently clear of everyone atop the Supporters’ Shield race despite having dealt with a bunch of injuries and absences.
These are, in other words, the types of games that they didn’t win many of the past two years.
Credit to Cincy for being the type of team, this year, that could push LAFC to that type of performance, and for having built enough depth (rookie draft pick Roman Celentano made his debut in goal and was very good) to do so even without a handful of their regulars.
They are moving in the right direction.
1. And finally, Miami have learned from at least one of their mistakes. Let me explain:
In 2019 they signed Julian Carranza, who’s now on loan with the Union and is playing quite well, as a Young DP (though to be fair they didn’t disclose at the time that he was a Young DP, but the point is that they signed a promising young center forward). They then, a few months later, drafted Robbie Robinson – who really is a center forward who can play on the wing a little bit, rather than the full-time winger he’s been miscast as – first overall. So that’s another young center forward they spent a valuable roster acquisition instrument upon.
And then six months after that, what did they do? That’s right, they went out and signed a third center forward, spending yet another valuable roster acquisition instrument on DP Gonzalo Higuain.
Let me ask you this: how the hell was Carranza supposed to develop when Higuain was brought in to take his minutes? How was Robinson, who is now a below-average MLS winger, supposed to reach his potential if he was sitting behind two DPs, or shifted to a spot that doesn’t really suit him? How was the team itself supposed to be any good if you spent three of your six (or so) most valuable roster acquisition instruments on players who play the same spot, and whose skills don’t actually amplify one another?
The answers are “he wasn’t,” “he hasn’t” and “they weren’t.”
Miami’s OG roster build was an epic disaster that set the club back five years, but here’s the most basic thing they failed at: being a good team is about more than just collecting talent. You have to put at least a little bit of thought into how that talent fits together. This is true in any league in the world (it’s why PSG sucks, relative to their overall talent), but it’s especially true in MLS.
You can’t spend your way out of every disaster here, and the vast, vast majority of players brought into the league need development. If you’re signing a Young DP, or making a high draft pick, you better be thinking about how you want that guy to fit in, and how you’re going to develop both him and the team around him. If you don’t have that laid out and ready to go, you are guaranteed to burn assets building a roster that doesn’t work.
That’s the story of Inter Miami in MLS so far. They’re still digging out of that hole, but Chris Henderson is, at the very least, doing good work collecting talented pieces who fit together in theory, and in practice, Phil Neville’s got them going out there and showing incremental improvement.
The best example of all of the above right now is young center forward Leo Campana, who on Sunday had a goal and an assist in Miami’s 2-1 win over visiting Atlanta, the Herons’ third straight (and fourth straight in all competitions). Campana is getting the room to play and develop – Higuain has been benched – that Carranza and Robinson never did, and he’s rewarding Neville with moments like this:
Miami have not solved all their problems, and I think it’s fair for Atlanta fans (and players, and coaches, and front office types) to look at this game as a massive missed opportunity.
But for the hosts there is at least, finally, a little bit of sanity with regard to how players are both acquired and deployed. It’s a necessary step forward, and perhaps eventually upward out of the hole that they dug for themselves before ever kicking a ball in a competitive match.